National Catholic Register
January 14-20, 2007 Issue
BURBANK, Ill. — Calling sex-abuse allegations against him “false” and “defamatory,” a Chicago priest is suing his accusers for intentionally inflicting emotional distress and injuring his reputation.
Last May, two brothers claimed that Father Robert Stepek, pastor of St. Albert the Great parish in Burbank, Ill., had abused them at another parish some 20 years ago.
The Chicago Archdiocese’s independent review board looked at the allegations. The case has been sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for further review, which could take a year. Meanwhile, Father Stepek is living in a private setting away from the parish.
The priest’s lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, says the two adults — identified as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2 — fabricated the story to humiliate him and injure his reputation.
The suit further states the brothers made the false statements to get back at Father Stepek for his refusals to give John Doe 2 a letter of recommendation to a seminary and to pay the Doe business for shoddy work done at the parish.
In countless media reports, Father Stepek’s name has been associated with “sex abuse,” while his accusers remain anonymous.
“His reputation has been pretty destroyed already,” said Philip Zisook, Father Stepek’s attorney. “I can think of no more egregious accusations to be made against a priest.”
Meanwhile, retired priest Father Michael Adams has volunteered to serve as a temporary administrator of St. Albert the Great. “Father Stepek has not been removed as pastor of St. Albert the Great,” emphasized Susan Burritt, communications director for the Archdiocese of Chicago. “He still retains the title of pastor, but he has been relieved of his duties until all this is resolved.”
“St. Albert the Great is 100% behind Father Stepek. We believe he’s innocent,” Guy Cesario Jr., parish council president, said. Parishioners continually pray for their priest. They have also launched a petition drive and thrown a fundraising party to help pay his legal expenses.
Much confusion surrounding the case springs from the fact that the review board said it found “reasonable cause to suspect that sexual abuse of minors occurred.” To many people, that sounded like Father Stepek did it. Jeffrey Anderson, the accusers’ attorney, even told the Register “reasonable cause” means the nine review board members found Father Stepek “guilty.”
But did they? Comparing the U.S. civil/criminal law system to the Church’s canon law system is a bit like trying to compare a computer to a daisy. But canon lawyers say “reasonable cause” means there’s no evidence of guilt at this stage.
“Guilt is established through a process,” explained Kathleen Asdorian, a civil lawyer with a degree in canon law from The Catholic University of America. A review board is there only to advise a bishop and to tell him whether the Church should look into a matter. No evidence has been considered yet. No investigation has been done.
In a case like Father Stepek’s, Asdorian said, “There is no possibility that guilt has been found or not found because nothing has happened yet.”
Although the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and others have attacked Father Stepek through the press, saying his lawsuit “is just plain wrong,” many in the Church applauded him for speaking out.
“My thought when he first spoke out was ‘Good for him. Don’t lay down and die,’” said Father Michael Hack, a canon lawyer and pastor who worked for six years at another parish with Father Stepek. “The issue here is innocent until proven guilty.”
In a Nov. 19 letter to his parishioners, Father Hack wrote: “An accusation is just that — an accusation. To label someone a sexual predator on the basis of one, as yet unproven, accusation is immoral.”
Father Richard Vega, president of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, headquartered in Chicago, also supports a priest’s right to sue his accusers. “What other recourse would a priest have?” he said. “How else can he clear his name and look for justice?”
Are false accusations on the increase? Joseph Maher, president of Opus Bono Sacerdotti, a Detroit-based organization that works to help accused priests, believes they are. “In this past year in particular, we’re seeing a lot of accusations that are blatantly false,” Maher said.
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has also criticized Father Stepek because he’s suing for money. He’s asking more than $1 million for each of four counts, for a total of more than $4 million.
Maher notes when one files a defamation suit, he has to sue for some damages, and that usually means naming an amount of money. “I can 100% guarantee you that if the brothers recanted, the lawsuit would be dropped,” he said. “Priests sue to get their good name back. None of them cares about the money.”
Maher advises priests that “if it really is a false allegation, scream it from the rooftops and never stop saying it.”
Nevertheless, he also advises them not to sue. A priest always has to remain open to the repentance and conversion of the sinner. And, he adds, “all canonical processes through the Church need to be exhausted” before going the civil law route.
If a priest fails to file a lawsuit within a certain period of time, however — in most states it’s within a year from the time the first accusation was made — he loses his right to sue. Some priests file against their accusers just to keep the option open, Maher says. “They decide later whether they want to move forward.”
Sue Ellin Browder is based in Willits, California .
The Doe Brothers Sue Cardinal George
In a curious twist of events, Father Robert Stepek’s accusers have sued Cardinal Francis George, claiming that he and the Chicago Archdiocese should have to pay for any damage done to Father Stepek’s reputation.
“Basically, they’re saying, ‘If we’re found liable for having made false statements about Father Stepek, which injured his reputation, the archdiocese, not us, should pay for it,’” explained Philip Zisook, Father Stepek’s attorney.
Said the accusers’ attorney Jeffrey Anderson: “This new lawsuit is basically designed to require the cardinal and the archdiocese to hold my clients — John Doe 1 and 2 — completely harmless in response to Stepek’s lawsuit against them.”
Anderson asserts that his clients made their accusations behind closed doors and the archdiocese made the charges public by relieving Father Stepek [at least temporarily] from his duties as pastor. Therefore, he argues, it’s the archdiocese, not the accusers, who injured the priest’s reputation.
Since the 1980s, Anderson has made millions of dollars suing the Catholic Church.
In a Dec. 13 statement from the archdiocese, Chancellor Jimmy Lago wrote: “The archdiocese regrets when anyone files a lawsuit in a misconduct matter, whether the person is claiming abuse or acting in defense of a claim. Litigation is not an effective way to achieve healing and closure.”
However, Lago stated, “the archdiocese cannot prevent anyone from bringing a claim to court. It is a right to do so.”
At this writing, the archdiocese had not had an opportunity to review the new lawsuit and could not comment on its details.
— Sue Ellin Browder