Diocese of Chicago Settles Sex-Abuse Suit for $750,000

By Kirk Petersen

Without admitting wrongdoing, the Diocese of Chicago reached a settlement in May for $750,000 with a man who was sexually abused by a priest in the diocese three decades ago. The Chicago Sun-Times reported the settlement June 3, under a headline reading that the episode “puts Bishop Chilton Knudsen’s actions under scrutiny.”

Bishop Chilton Knudsen

Knudsen, the retired Bishop of Maine, currently serves as assisting bishop in the Diocese of Chicago — where she worked on the diocesan staff before becoming a bishop. The Bishop of Chicago at the time was the Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold, who later became presiding bishop.

Knudsen was serving as pastoral care officer on Griswold’s staff on May 28,1990, when an 18-year-old man met with her and said he had been sexually abused for four years by Richard Kearney, ending when the youth was about 16. Kearney had been vicar of St. Bride’s Episcopal Church in Oregon, Illinois, where the young man was active in the parish, according to a diocesan spokesperson.

The 2,500-word Sun-Times article says Knudsen “didn’t immediately call the police after the 18-year-old told her Kearney repeatedly abused him.” Diocesan spokesperson Jim Naughton acknowledged that she did not immediately call the police, and said the young man did not want her to do so.

The newspaper, however, reported: “The man — who now lives in the Chicago area and asked not to be named — says that’s not true. He says he was willing from the start to talk to police.” The paper noted that “clergy in Illinois weren’t required by law to report suspected child sex abuse until 2002.”

Knudsen has declined requests for interviews, Naughton said.

According to Naughton, although the diocese did not contact police until later, it quickly took action to prevent further abuse. Knudsen immediately informed Griswold of the allegations, who instructed her to tell Kearney he was suspended from parish ministry, and was not to hold services on Sunday. Kearney by then was rector of Church of the Annunciation in Gurnee, Illinois.

Kearney met with Griswold on June 7, 1990, admitted the abuse, and said he had abused others. “He understood that his active priesthood was over,” Griswold said in a July 5 letter to clergy in the diocese. Kearney subsequently pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse, and was sentenced to four years in prison, of which he served 18 months. Kearney also was “deposed,” or formally stripped of his privilege to engage in ordained ministry under Title IV of the canons of the church.

Naughton said Griswold held open meetings at both churches to discuss the abuse, provide access to social workers, and urge any other victims to come forward.

As the Sun-Times was preparing to publish its story, the Diocese of Chicago posted two messages on its website disclosing some of the revelations that were about to be made.

On May 25, the diocese said it had settled two civil suits involving allegations of sexual abuse against priests who had served in the diocese: Kearney, and another priest who died in 1968. The message did not disclose the amounts of the settlements.

On June 1, a message said that after reviewing its archives, “the diocese is re-releasing the names of four former priests who were convicted of, or plead guilty to, sexually abusing children in order to create a public historical record.” The message named Kearney and three other priests. Neither website message mentioned Knudsen or Griswold.

The Sun-Times reported:

Kearney is now 81 and living in a nursing facility in Maryland, not far from his brother and sister. …

Reached by phone, Kearney says his memory comes and goes and he can’t speak with certainty about the past but acknowledges he molested kids and says he regrets doing so.

“Yes, it was like a split personality,” Kearney says. “I was convinced that I was in a loving, caring relationship.”

Knudsen was named assisting bishop in Chicago last year after Bishop-Elect Paula Clark suffered a stroke. Knudsen is not the ecclesiastical authority in the diocese — that role remains with the Standing Committee — but is there as an advisor and to perform duties that canonically can only be done by a bishop. Clark has significantly recovered, and her delayed consecration has been scheduled for September 17. Griswold, now 84, served as presiding bishop from 1998 to 2006.

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