Priest resigns post over '90s sex case

George to review appointment to U. of C. ministry

Chicago Tribune/February 9, 2005
By Manya A. Brachear

Cardinal Francis George expressed regret Tuesday for placing a priest who once had a sexual relationship with a college student into a University of Chicago ministry, vowing to review the flawed process that put him there.

Rev. Michael Yakaitis, 52, who has served since 2001 as chaplain of Calvert House, a Catholic student center in Hyde Park, resigned his position Tuesday, acknowledging he had engaged in sexual activity with an 18-year-old male seminarian 15 years ago.

The former seminarian, now 32, said Yakaitis served as his spiritual director at Loyola University's Niles College Seminary when the sexual relationship occurred. When the student tried to end the relationship, Yakaitis threatened him, the former seminarian said, and he eventually withdrew from the seminary, which is now defunct.

In a statement released Tuesday, Yakaitis said he had undergone counseling and residential treatment after the incidents and has remained celibate ever since. He also conceded that accepting the appointment to college ministry was not a smart choice.

"I also acknowledge today that accepting the appointment at Calvert House was not a wise decision in view of my past history...," he said. "I ask for your understanding and forgiveness, especially if I have caused anyone to question their faith in this local church."

The alleged affair began in 1990 during the student's freshman year. At that time, the former seminarian said, Yakaitis served as his spiritual director, counselor and academic professor. In a letter released Monday, the former seminarian said he understood his communication with Yakaitis as his spiritual director to be confidential.

"In the course of my spiritual direction with Father Yakaitis, I divulged my confusion about my sexuality, my dawning realization that I am gay, and my struggle to learn how to integrate my sexual identity with my desire to be a priest," he wrote. "Father Yakaitis presented himself as a mentor and a friend, leading me to trust and confide in him."

But, the former seminarian said, late in the fall of his freshman year, Yakaitis abused his role and began using alcohol, coercion and blackmail to initiate a series of sexual encounters. Every time the student tried to end the relationship, he said, Yakaitis threatened to terminate his seminary career.

In November 1991, the seminarian confronted Yakaitis when another student confided that he, too, had sexual encounters with the priest, the former seminarian said. During that confrontation, the student said Yakaitis told him that he would inform his family and the archdiocese of the student's homosexual behavior and expel him from the seminary.

Frightened by that prospect, the student withdrew from the seminary and continued his studies at Loyola University, he said.

In summer 1993, the student sought admission to St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein to "conquer my pain by facing the abuse and reclaiming my desire to be a priest," he said.

During a series of meetings, he said he notified a number of administrators within the archdiocese about Yakaitis' behavior, including Rev. Gerald Kicanas, now bishop of Tucson, Ariz., and Rev. John Canary, then vicar for priests, now rector of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary.

In a memo, Kicanas, then rector of the Mundelein seminary, recommended that the victim take two years off "to explore these issues in therapy to resolve the justified anger that resulted from this significant breach of trust."

Kicanas did not return calls for comment Tuesday.

Canary said he told the student the matter would be handled according to the policies set forth in 1992 to protect victims of clergy sexual abuse.

"I assured him that every safeguard would be taken," Canary said. "We tried to do that."

At the student's urging, Rev. Larry McBrady, vicar for priests in 1998, called another meeting to discuss how to handle similar issues in seminary culture. At that meeting, Yakaitis drew from personal experience to address inappropriate relationships between faculty and students that "are not infrequent."

Canary said that when he heard of Yakaitis' appointment to the University of Chicago in 2001, he notified the proper authorities within the archdiocese. He said he was assured that the matter would be investigated.

"That's the gaping hole in this whole incident," the former seminarian said Tuesday. "How could he have been reassigned in almost exactly the same position he had abused me?"

Archdiocese spokesman Jim Dwyer said that although a formal policy is in place for dealing with clergy sexual abuse of minors, none exists for handling clergy sexual exploitation of adults.

"There's not a real formal policy in place," Dwyer said. "We have a more informal policy in place administrated through the vicar for priests office for any misconduct of any kind, financial, sexual."

George said in a statement Tuesday that he would re-examine the process of appointments.

"I regret his appointment three years ago to a ministry with college students," the statement said. "I will review the process that led to my decision to permit Father Yakaitis to work in college ministry and will take the steps needed to correct any errors in that process for the future."

Those coming and going Tuesday from Calvert House were stunned by the news that Yakaitis had resigned and why.

Monika Hadioetomo, 23, said that in the few years she has known "Father Mike," he has made Calvert House into a "home away from home" for many students, often cooking meals himself to create a hospitable environment.

"He set a very conservative Catholic presence on campus," said Dr. Chris Clardy, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago, as he left the house Tuesday. Clardy said Yakaitis also was instrumental in setting up the university medical school's Bible study.

Ordained in 1978, Yakaitis served at St. Ann's parish in Hazel Crest from 1978 to 1983; St. Hilary's parish in Chicago from 1983 to 1986; Niles College Seminary from 1986 to 1993; St. Barbara's parish in Bridgeport from 1993 to 2001; and Nativity B.V.M. in Chicago from 1997 to 2001.

Yakaitis maintains that since his treatment, received after his tenure at Niles, he has remained celibate.

"All of what Father Yakaitis said may be true," Canary said. "But as we work with people, we do tell them we will take every precaution. I'm not sure as Father Yakaitis just said [that college ministry] was the prudent choice."

The former seminarian, who came forward through the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, expressed a sense of relief at news of Yakaitis' resignation.

"Knowing that by going public I have helped to bring a greater degree of openness and scrutiny to failings in the church for the good of the church has helped me in the healing process," he said.

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