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After beating 80-year-old priest, robber asked for prayers

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Updated: January 8, 2012 8:13AM

They broke into the priest’s home as he slept.

They busted his ribs. They gave him a black eye.

Rev. Daniel Mallette, preparing for the next life, confessed his sins aloud. The two masked intruders told the 80-year-old priest to shut up and beat him some more.

They forced him to open a safe and stole $500 meant for the poor.

And when they were done, they asked him to pray for their souls.

Incredibly, that’s exactly what the priest Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart describes as “a living saint” did later Tuesday morning, parishioners of St. Margaret of Scotland Church said.

As the gritty Mallette recovered from the brutal attack in the Southwest Side church’s rectory, appalled well-wishers sang the praises of a colorful character who has dedicated his life to tackling violence and poverty.

“It’s outrageous that someone would attack an 80-year-old man in the middle of the night and it’s all the more outrageous that they would target such an amazing person,” said Dart, a close friend of the priest and a member of his 1,200-strong congregation. Evidence suggests at least one of the attackers may have known Mallette, though Chicago Police have made no arrests, he said.

Mallette, who marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and has helped keep St. Margaret’s one of the city’s most ethnically and racially diverse Catholic churches since 1977, was asleep upstairs at the church rectory on the 9800 block of South Throop around 12:30 a.m. Tuesday when two armed robbers in “ninja masks” broke in, police and parishioners said.

The robbers forced him to kneel, beat him and initially demanded cash from a basement safe. But, when Mallette could not open it, they stole $500 from a bedroom safe instead, parish council chairman Patrick Catania said. A good description of the attackers was not available, police said.

During the attack, the priest said the act of contrition, a prayer confessing to sins, but the attackers “kept beating him and told him to shut up,” Catania said. “He was preparing for the worst — he didn’t know how it would end,” Catania added.

“One of the guys even asked him to pray for him when it was over,” he said, a request he described as “unbelievable.”

But longtime friend and former St. Margaret of Scotland School principal Earl McKay said Mallette forgives the attackers. “One of them offered to call an ambulance, so there is at least some compassion there,” he said. Mallette, who declined the offer, “looks like he’s been hit by a bus,” he added.

Police found the priest after they were alerted by an alarm system.

He was treated and released at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn. Despite his injuries, he was determined to lead morning mass at 8:30 a.m. and had to be told to stay in bed and rest by doctors and the Sheriff Tom Dart, Catania said.

Cardinal Francis George was not available for comment Tuesday but the Archdiocese of Chicago released a statement, saying, “Our prayers are with Fr. Mallette for his recovery and for the people of St. Margaret of Scotland Parish.” Parishioners plan to show their support at a 6 p.m. mass on Thursday.

The priest is a former boxer who still leads every mass at St. Margaret’s and takes an active role in after school programs designed to keep kids off the streets. “I just love this parish, love the people, love what we got goin’,” he said in a 2005 interview with the Sun-Times.

In a neighborhood troubled enough that a 16-year-old boy survived a shooting in the church’s basement in 2008, Tuesday’s attack wasn’t the first time violence has been directed against Mallette.

When two homeless men broke into his bedroom in 2002, he fought them off, he recalled in the 2005 interview.

They “said, ‘Get up, old man.’ In my f-----’ room!”, he recalled. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live. About three in the mornin’ I hear this, ‘Get up old man.’ I look over and it’s two guys with hoods on. I said, ‘I’m not gonna let these bastards shoot me,’ so then I threw myself at ‘em. And they went flyin’ out this door and I shoved a chair in front of it, and then I went to call the cops and they had cut the phones. It was scary. They just left.”

A huge Bears fan and still close to many in the boxing trade, he worked the corner for South Sider Johnny Lira in a 1979 World Lightweight titlefight. He beat a serious drinking problem in the 1970s and joked in 2005 that he’d missed a crucial chance to advance his career “thanks to Cutty Sark! I always say that if I wasn’t drinking at that time, I would probably be the cardinal.”

Catania said Tuesday that the priest’s work for social justice in the predominantly African-American community had kept white former parishioners who’ve moved to other neighborhoods coming back, every Sunday.

“It’s all him — if he died tomorrow, we’d see the congregation dry up,” Catania said. “He’s the embodiment of everything that you expect a priest to be.”

The money the robbers stole was intended to help feed the poor, he added.

“If they’d just rang the doorbell and asked for help, he’d have helped them — he helps everyone.”

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