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Priest reinstated after inquiry finds abuse claim unfounded

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Updated: May 17, 2014 6:24AM



A Chicago Catholic priest, who had been accused of sexually abusing a minor nearly 20 years ago, is being reinstated to active ministry after a Cook County Sheriff’s office investigation found the allegation was unfounded, the Archdiocese of Chicago said Tuesday.

The Rev. Michael W. O’Connell will resume his role on Thursday as pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish in Chicago, the archdiocese said in a statement.

At a news conference at Holy Name Cathedral, O’Connell said he is “grateful that due process brings us to true justice. . . . I look forward to being back with my people.”

He added, “I trusted that justice would be done, that the process would work and that the truth would come out . . . I think one always has moments of concern, but I knew the truth and I knew that the Lord stood with me.”

At the request of Cardinal Francis George, O’Connell agreed to step aside from his parish on Dec. 4, 2013 while Archdiocese of Chicago officials investigated whether O’Connell engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor while assigned to Our Lady of the Woods Parish in Orland Park.

The single allegation was received by the Archdiocesan’s Office for Child Abuse Investigations and Review and reported to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the Cook County State’s Attorney, the archdiocese said. The archdiocese also cooperated with the Cook County sheriff, who conducted an independent investigation.

The sheriff’s office “thoroughly investigated the allegation” while working with the State’s Attorney’s Office, and was unable to support any charges, Eleni Demertzis, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said in an email statement.

In its own investigation, the Archdiocesan Independent Review Board “did not find reason to suspect that sexual abuse of a minor had occurred.”

The panel recommended that O’Connell be returned to active ministry, the archdiocese said, adding George accepted the board’s recommendation.

DCFS declined comment, citing state privacy laws.

But George’s decision to reinstate O’Connell disappointed Barbara Blaine, founder and president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

“We have met this victim and find him very credible,” she said in a statement. “And we’ve seen dozens of cases across the country in which Catholic officials have reinstated an accused child-molesting cleric only to later oust him permanently.”

In response, archdiocese spokeswoman Colleen Dolan pointed to the review board and the sheriff’s office investigations.

“I have never done anything inappropriate to a young person,” said O’Connell, 57, noting he was shocked when the allegation was made.

O’Connell said he has not met with his accuser. Asked what he’d like to say to him, O’Connell responded: “I hope he finds peace in his life and blessing in his life.”

O’Connell served as pastor of Our Lady of the Woods from 1997 to 2012. Since July 2012, he has served as pastor of St. Aphonsus. St. Alphonsus parish includes St. Alphonsus Catholic Church and St. Alphonsus Academy & Center for the Arts, a pre-school and elementary school, on Chicago’s North Side.

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