Posted on Wed, Jul. 17, 2002
Priest who was ousted in 1993 remains bitter
Claims he was removed without due process
By George Pawlaczyk
SPARTA -- With a full head of silver hair and a deep tan, Jerome Ratermann seems more like a jovial charter-boat captain than an ousted priest contemplating revenge.
The 70-year-old's good-natured banter masks a bitterness he said has been growing since his removal from ministry in 1993 when he was pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Belleville. The bishop at the time, the Most Rev. James Keleher, now bishop of Kansas City, Kan., announced that Ratermann had to be removed because of allegations he sexually abused minors some 20 years before.
Ratermann, the first of 12 priests in the diocese to be forced out because of allegations of sexual abuse or sexual abuse of minors, said he has been bitter since his ouster because he was not given ``due process'' by the church hierarchy.
That bitterness may result in revenge, Ratermann said, if a current review of his case by Bishop Wilton Gregory, which was mandated by action last month at the National Conference of Bishops in Dallas, results in Ratermann's removal from the priesthood itself.
If that happens, Ratermann said he may reveal ``embarrassing'' details regarding former high-ranking diocesan officials he would not name.
``I've been deprived of hope. I just hope it doesn't get any worse. If it does, I may tell my story,'' he said Monday, during an interview outside his Sparta farmhouse. ``If I told you, you wouldn't believe it.''
Ratermann would only laugh and shake his head when pressed for details.
As for his own alleged wrongdoing, he said: ``I would never admit to something I cannot remember. Never.... I'm not the monster some people have presented me to be.''
While he would not reveal the nature of the allegations against him, he criticized the Diocesan Review Board that removed him and the other priests.
Ratermann said he was given just 30 minutes to speak to a female social worker who served as the review board's investigator and was never told the identities of the witnesses against him or details of the allegations.
``This happened a third of a century ago in another county,'' he said. ``The state's attorney looked at it. The parents looked at it. Everybody said let it alone. They can't even say the year it happened.''
The allegations, like decades-old claims against some of the other priests who were later removed, surfaced after the Belleville News-Democrat began publishing a series of stories about sexual abuse in the Diocese of Belleville.
``Our lives were being decided and we had no part in it. Everything was decided in our absence and in secrecy,'' Ratermann said. ``(Bishop Keleher) panicked because the News-Democrat was accusing him of covering up.''
Ratermann said the accused priests were told by church officials not to talk to the media and that prevented them from getting their side of the story to the public.
Referring to Vicar General Monsignor James Margason, the diocesan official who most often talks to reporters, Ratermann said, ``Father Margason has been very outspoken while we were told not to talk to the newspapers. That's bull....''
If Gregory reviews the allegations against Ratermann and finds there is credible evidence to believe he molested at least one child, no matter how long ago, then the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People adopted by the bishops' conference requires that the case be referred to Rome. That would mean another review and, if the local finding is upheld, removal by the pope. The only exceptions allowed are for infirmity or age.
Margason, the vicar general, said that with priests like Ratermann, who have more than 20 years of service, removal by the pope would not stop retirement benefits paid by the diocese.
Ratermann said he spends his retirement traveling and visiting friends. Although he cannot wear a clerical collar or say Mass publicly, he said he still dons the vestments of a priest and says Mass in his home.
``I say Mass every day,'' he said. ``I still believe in God. Absolutely.''
Asked whether he thinks his case might be reviewed favorably if it is referred to Rome, Ratermann answered: ``I have no faith at all that will happen. I wish things would stay like they are.''