Joliet bishop revokes conditional return of priest accused of abusing teen

Chicago Tribune/September 18, 2012

A Joliet-area priest reinstated last week after being removed from ministry over an allegation of sexual abuse has been withdrawn once again, Joliet Bishop R. Daniel Conlon confirmed today.

Last week, parishioners learned that the Rev. F. Lee Ryan could minister to homebound parishioners of St. Edmund Catholic Church in Watseka, south of Kankakee, and St. Joseph Mission in Crescent City. He had been removed from ministry in May 2010 because of an alleged relationship with a teenager in the 1970s.

But Conlon, who also serves as chairman of the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People for U.S. Catholic bishops, returned him to limited ministry last week because the allegation did not meet the criteria of a crime under church law at that time.

"Subsequent discussions that have occurred since that decision have highlighted that any action needs to fulfill the larger need of the Church to confront the scandal of child abuse in its midst and work to diligently restore trust," Conlon said in a statement. "For the sake of the greater good of the Church, I have decided to revoke my earlier permission and once again place Fr. Ryan on full administrative leave."

In late May 2010, then Joliet Bishop J. Peter Sartain informed the parishioners of St. Edmund and St. Joseph that Ryan was being placed on administrative leave because of a "serious allegation of sexual abuse of a minor."

A now-52-year-old Florida man alleged that he and Ryan had a relationship that lasted for more than a year, starting when the accuser was 14. The man said he confided in Ryan that he was gay, and as the two became closer and the relationship became sexual, he believed that the two were dating.

The accuser told the Tribune that he did not inform police or church officials at the time, and that only two years ago he decided to tell his mother about an inappropriate relationship with their family priest. His mother talked to a victims advocate who works for the diocese, and the advocate arranged for him to submit a complaint to the church, he said.

The complaint was initially assessed by a local review board and then sent to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Through a spokesman, Bishop Conlon told the Tribune that the Vatican cited Canon No. 2359 in the 1917 Code of Canon Law to explain why the priest was not found guilty of violating church law. That code stipulates that a cleric who violates the commandment forbidding adultery, by indecently touching a person under the age of 16, has committed a canonical crime.

Though the victim said a church official told him over the phone that age was the key issue, the diocese did not explain why the accuser's claim did not meet the criteria since inappropriate contact took place before age 16.

The reinstatement came on the heels of a landmark speech by Conlon to a national conference of church child welfare workers in which he said the hierarchy's credibility has been marred by the clergy sex abuse scandal of the past decade.

"Our credibility on the subject of child abuse is shredded," Conlon told the National Safe Environment and Victim Assistance Coordinators Leadership Conference in Omaha, Neb. Comparing the scandal to the Reformation, when "the episcopacy, the regular clergy, even the papacy were discredited."

Conlon said he long had hoped the bishops' child protection policies would sway public opinion, but he now knows "this was an illusion."

On Tuesday, Conlon said he would initiate further conversations with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about Ryan's case.

"What is of paramount importance is to manifest the Catholic Church's commitment to safeguard youth and vulnerable adults," he said.

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