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Diocese of Joliet doesn’t deny reinstated priest abused teen

The Rev. Lee Ryan is shown this file photo. Supplied

The Rev. Lee Ryan is shown in this file photo. Supplied

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The Rev. F. Lee Ryan’s assignments

1968: Assistant pastor at St. Liborius in Steger

1973: Assistant pastor at St. Joseph in Addison

1974: Faculty member at Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox

1985: Vocation director for the Diocese of Joliet

1990: Pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in Bolingbrook

1991: Pastor of St. Edmund in Watseka

2010: Removed from ministry after allegations of past sexual abuse

2012: Returned to homebound ministry in Watseka area

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Updated: October 15, 2012 9:55AM

The Diocese of Joliet is not denying that the Rev. F. Lee Ryan had inappropriate sexual relations with a minor.

But Ryan is being returned to the ministry based the Vatican’s interpretation of an obscure tenet of canon law that suggests such conduct can be tolerated if the victim was at least 16.

Except the victim says he was 14 at the time.

And he’s baffled by a decision implying that his age at the time made all the difference.

“I can only tell you that’s what they tell me, but I don’t know what that means,” said the victim, who does not want his identity revealed. “I don’t know canon law from anything. But it seems to me ludicrous and out of sync with what happened.”

The law calls for discipline up to removal from the priesthood for adultery with minors under the age of 16. But Ryan is being reinstated to what the diocese described this week as “very limited ministry” to homebound parishioners in the Watseka area.

Bishop R. Daniel Conlon, leader of the diocese, would not consent to an interview on the matter but referred in a written statement to the ruling by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.

In a response to questions submitted in writing, Conlon wrote, “The Congregation issued a decision that Fr. Ryan is not guilty of grave delict (“serious crime”) under the 1917 Code of Law which was in effect at the time of the alleged abuse. The letter from the Congregation simply cited one Canon (2359 p2) without further explanation.”

That Canon says: “If they have committed a crime against the sixth commandment with a minor under sixteen years of age, or have committed adultery, rape, bestiality, sodomy, pandering, or incest with any person related to them by consanguinity or affinity in the first degree, they shall be suspended, declared infamous, deprived of any office, benefice, dignity, or position which they may have, and in more serious cases, shall be deposed.”

Conlon did say his predecessor, Bishop J. Peter Sartain, with the help of a review committee sent the allegations against Ryan to Rome after determining that there was “enough evidence that the alleged abuse may have occurred.”

But Conlon said it was not appropriate to discuss publicly what the church found to be the extent of Ryan’s conduct.

As to whether he had any authority to bar Ryan from active ministry despite the decision from Rome, Conlon wrote, “The Bishops are obligated to follow the directives of the Holy See.”

The Holy See refers to the ultimate authority of the pope and the Vatican in Rome in matters of the church.

It’s part of what Joliet attorney Michael Bolos describes as the “inner workings” of the church that the public is unlikely to grasp when it comes to matters like priests accused of having sex with teenage boys.

“The church may permissibly use its own laws to govern internal affairs,” Bolos said. “But once you are talking about ministry, you are talking about people who are out in the public with people who are not part of the inner workings of the church.”

Bolos represented 13 clients who alleged they were victims of sex abuse by priests. During that time, between 2000 and 2007, Bolos said, the church became “more forthcoming and more aware that there had to be significant oversight over the activities of their priests.”

Conlon heads a U.S. Bishops Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People and recently spoke out on the need to bring more credibility to the church’s handling of the clergy sex abuse scandal.

Now his own credibility is being challenged by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a watchdog group that regularly questions the church’s handling of sexual abuse cases.

SNAP drew attention this week to the reinstatement of Ryan. Its president, Barbara Blaine, contends Conlon should have stood up to Rome, and was particularly critical of the use of canon law to justify Ryan’s return to ministry.

“They’re putting children at risk,” Blaine said, “and they’re playing this game of splitting hairs.”

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