By Manya A. Brachear
CHICAGO (Chicago Tribune ) — A Joliet, Ill.-area priest removed from ministry over an allegation of sexual abuse has been reinstated because his alleged relationship with a teenager in the 1970s did not meet the criteria of a crime under church law at that time, according to the Joliet Diocese.
Starting this weekend, the Rev. F. Lee Ryan will minister to homebound parishioners of St. Edmund Catholic Church in Watseka, south of Kankakee, and St. Joseph Mission in Crescent City, the diocese said in a statement.
A spokesman for Joliet Bishop R. Daniel Conlon, who also serves as chairman of the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People for U.S. Catholic bishops, declined to say whether a local review board had substantiated the allegation, but he said the decision to reinstate Ryan had been difficult.
“He will not return to (full) ministry, but he is being permitted (a) very narrow ministry,” the statement said. “This was a very difficult decision. I believe it respects the law of the church and protects children.”
But church observers say the priest’s reinstatement, no matter how narrow, is a backward step in the American hierarchy’s handling of the church abuse scandal.
“This seems to be an unusual development,” said Timothy Lytton, a professor at Albany Law School in New York and author of a book titled “Holding Bishops Accountable.” “It is a change in the direction that the bishops say they have been going.”
In late May 2010, then Joliet Bishop J. Peter Sartain informed the parishioners of St. Edmund and St. Joseph that Ryan was being placed on administrative leave because of a “serious allegation of sexual abuse of a minor.”
A now-52-year-old Florida man alleged that he and Ryan had a relationship that lasted for more than a year, starting when the accuser was 14. The man said he confided in Ryan that he was gay, and as the two became closer and the relationship became sexual, he believed that the two were dating.
“I found safety in him,” the man said. “He had my secret.”
The accuser told the Chicago Tribune that he did not inform police or church officials at the time, and that only two years ago he decided to tell his mother about an inappropriate relationship with their family priest. His mother talked to a victims advocate who works for the diocese, and the advocate arranged for him to submit a complaint to the church, he said.
The complaint was initially assessed by a local review board and then sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Bishop Conlon’s spokesman told the Tribune that the Vatican cited Canon No. 2359 in the 1917 Code of Canon Law to explain why the priest was not found guilty of violating church law.
The code stipulates that a cleric who violates the commandment forbidding adultery, by indecently touching a person under the age of 16, has committed a canonical crime.
Though the victim said a church official told him over the phone that age was the key issue, the diocese did not explain why the accuser’s claim did not meet the criteria.
In 1994, American bishops amended the law to change the age of consent from 16 to 18 because it was “awkward to have canon law not mirror civil law,” said Nicholas Cafardi, a canon law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
But the accuser said inappropriate contact took place before age 16, meaning that the significance of his age remains unclear.
In March, while the Vatican was reviewing the allegation, Conlon wrote a letter to the accuser about the case but declined to document the particulars.
“I would be very happy to sit down and discuss the matter in detail with you, but I am not comfortable putting those details in writing,” the bishop wrote in the letter, which was provided to the Tribune by the accuser.
On Tuesday, the accuser said the diocese’s safe environment coordinator insisted on phone communication rather than email despite the accuser’s repeated requests to have the diocese put things in writing. He said he initially didn’t mind the phone communication, but later realized that many of the details she had told him over the phone were omitted from the official statement to Ryan’s parishes announcing his return to ministry.
Conlon’s action to reinstate Ryan on a limited basis comes a month after the bishop told a national conference of church child welfare workers that the hierarchy’s credibility has been badly damaged by the clergy sex abuse scandal of the past decade.
“Our credibility on the subject of child abuse is shredded,” Conlon told the National Safe Environment and Victim Assistance Coordinators Leadership Conference in Omaha, Neb.
Comparing the scandal to the Reformation, when “the episcopacy, the regular clergy, even the papacy were discredited,” Conlon said he long had hoped the bishops’ child protection policies would sway public opinion, but he now knows “this was an illusion.”
Monsignor Thomas J. Green, a canon law professor at the Catholic University of America, said the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican always has the last say in the discipline of priests. In some instances, that means the bishops’ hands are tied.
“In the old days, bishops made these decisions themselves,” he said. “CDF is calling the shots ultimately.”
Marci Hamilton, public law professor at Yeshiva University, said many priests remain in ministry because of canon law technicalities. And she found fault with the Joliet Diocese’s lack of transparency.
Hamilton called Conlon an “enigma” as head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People. She said she was stunned when he told news media that he didn’t know the details of the trial of Bishop Robert Finn, the leader of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., recently convicted of failure to report a sex crime.
Lytton also questioned Conlon’s effectiveness as the bishops’ point man on abuse.
“The diocese is trying to find a canon law solution to a problem that’s really about moral outrage and not about the technicalities of canon law infractions,” he said. “If the allegation is true and the church is saying because he wasn’t guilty of a crime under standards of the 1970s, the church is in no position to punish him or sanction him, the bishop isn’t getting it.”