Group: Archdiocese mishandling latest priest sex abuse allegation
BY FRANCINE KNOWLES Religion Reporter December 9, 2013 7:22PM
Fr. Mike O'Connell, right, at Our Lady of the Woods Catholic Church in Orland Park, Ill., Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009. | File photo
Updated: January 11, 2014 6:28AM
A network of survivors of priest sexual abuse is criticizing the Archdiocese of Chicago for its handling of an allegation of sexual misconduct by the pastor of a Lake View church.
Meanwhile a parishioner at a church where the priest had previously been pastor offered words of support for the priest.
The Archdiocese of Chicago said Sunday it was notified about an allegation that the Rev. Michael W. O’Connell engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor in the late 1990s while he was pastor at his previous parish, Our Lady of the Woods Parish in Orland Park, a church spokeswoman said. He served as pastor there from 1997 to 2012.
He is currently pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish, which includes St. Alphonsus Catholic Church and St. Alphonsus Academy & Center for the Arts, a pre-school and elementary school, on Chicago’s North Side.
The archdiocese contacted the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services after receiving the single allegation, a church spokeswoman said. At the request of Cardinal Francis George, O’Connell agreed to step aside from day-to-day responsibilities and reside away from the parish while the archdiocese investigates, according to the archdiocese spokeswoman.
“Rather than allowing him to step aside, he should be suspended, and his whereabouts should be made public,” said Barbara Blaine, president of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“I think we should be erring on the side of protecting the vulnerable,” she said.
The archdiocese is following its normal protocol for when such allegations are made, archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Burritt said.
“Upon receipt of an allegation of the sexual abuse of a minor, in the interest of the safety of children and fitness for ministry, the Cardinal may take interim action, which may include temporary withdrawal from ministry, restrictions or other actions deemed appropriate by the Cardinal,” Burritt said in an email statement.
O’Connell remains pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish and has not been removed from public ministry, she said.
“A priest would be removed from public ministry if an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor has been substantiated by the Archdiocese’s Review Process for Continuation of Ministry, which is based upon determinations and recommendations made by the Independent Review Board to the Cardinal for his final decision,” she stated.
Parents picking up children from the St. Alphonsus academy Monday declined to comment on the allegation.
The archdiocese informed parents and parishioners about the allegations via an announcement read at all masses this past weekend, she said. The parish administrator emailed parishioners, and the school principal emailed parents, Burritt said.
A parishioner at Our Lady of the Woods, Marilyn Conners, said she hoped the archdiocese’s investigation into the charge against O’Connell would quickly exonerate him.
“I just can’t imagine that there is any truth to this,” she said. “He is a good man.”
The Rev. Michael Foley, current pastor of Our Lady of the Woods, said he could not comment on the allegation against O’Connell, who, while previously at St. Michael’s Church in Orland Park, had a role in the establishment of Our Lady of the Woods. The parish was founded in 1984 to accommodate the large growth in the number of parishioners at St. Michael’s.
Contributing: Mike Nolan