Ousted priest sues Peoria diocese
Abuse allegations called defamation
By Bill Glauber
Tribune staff reporter
Published September 5, 2002
PEORIA -- A retired priest filed a defamation suit Wednesday against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Peoria, joining a small number of clergy nationally who are waging a legal battle against the sexual misconduct allegations that ended their careers.
Rev. Edward E. Bush, 70, said the allegations that led to his removal from public ministry earlier this year were untrue. His suit, filed in Peoria County Circuit Court against the diocese and two church officials, including the bishop who ousted him, asks for more than $50,000 in damages.
At a news conference Bush stressed that his goal isn't to extract cash, but to prove his innocence.
"I have never been given the opportunity to defend myself, and I have been sentenced and disgraced without any hearing or trial," said Bush, flanked by a dozen family members.
Unlike several other cases in which priests ousted over abuse charges have used the civil courts to confront their accusers, Bush is taking on the diocese he served for 45 years at St. Patrick in Colona, St. Thomas in Peoria Heights and Sacred Heart in Moline.
Bush's attorney, Aldo E. Botti, said the allegations against the priest involve misconduct two women said occurred 38 years ago when they were teenagers. The accusations surfaced in March, and Bush retired the following month.
In May, Bush and six other Peoria priests were removed from ministry by recently installed Bishop Daniel R. Jenky. The priests were stripped of their Roman collars and the right to call themselves father.
Although Bush's lawsuit is unusual amid the sex abuse scandal that has roiled the Roman Catholic Church this year, experts say it is far from unprecedented for clergy to take their churches to court in defamation cases.
The most common such cases involve clergy who were removed from their congregations for other kinds of misconduct, said Patrick Schiltz, associate dean of the law school at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.
Schiltz, who defended churches in about 500 clergy misconduct cases from 1987 to 1995, said courts are wary of hearing defamation cases involving church and clergy.
"It's hard for priests and pastors to bring these things," he said. "In the vast majority of these cases the courts dismiss them on 1st Amendment grounds. Courts are also concerned about the chilling effect on bishops."
Nevertheless, some observers said this case might have a wider impact.
Rev. Robert J. Silva, president of the Chicago-based National Federation of Priests' Councils, said Bush's suit "indicates some of the anger and frustration felt by many priests questioning whether their rights are offended." He said the suit "adds a new dimension" to the relationship between the church and priests accused of abuse.
Advocates for abuse victims criticized the suit, saying such legal actions can hurt victims.
"These suits against victims or church officials are intended to do one thing--intimidate witnesses," said David Clohessy of St. Louis, who leads the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Bush's lawsuit names Jenky, the Catholic Diocese of Peoria and Monsignor Steven P. Rohlfs, the diocese chancellor, as defendants. It contends Bush "has been injured in his good name and reputation in the community in which he presently lives and in those communities where he has served as a priest of the Roman Catholic Church."
In a statement released by Kate Kenny, communications director, the diocese declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying it "has not yet been officially notified of the suit and has yet to review its contents."
The statement concluded, "Bishop Daniel R. Jenky continues to have the protection of the children of the diocese of Peoria as his primary concern."
Botti, Bush's lawyer, also has represented Rev. John Barrett, who was suspended by the Diocese of Joliet earlier this year while abuse claims against him were investigated. Barrett was reinstated in his Elmhurst parish in June.
In that case, Botti, asserting his client's innocence, threatened to sue the alleged victim if he made a "false claim."
Asked Wednesday if a defamation suit might be lodged against Bush's accusers, Botti said: "If people are going to say things that are untrue, they will be dealt with. We're not threatening anyone."
Botti said Bush has passed a polygraph test and is seeking information from the church on the case.
"We sent letters to the church and said, `Hey, what have you got?'" Botti said. "He has taken a polygraph test. He passed it. We gave the diocese a copy. Their response was silence."
Bush said no complaints had been made against him until the women came forward in March. He said his retirement was related to the allegations "in the sense that I had denied it from the beginning, but when there is an investigation you have to retire or resign."
Bush, who uses a wheelchair because of a rare disease that causes pressure at the base of the brain against the spine, spoke in a firm and deliberate manner in denying the accusations against him.
"I shall always be obedient to my God and to the Catholic Church," he said. "Despite what has happened to me, I am holding on to my faith and to the love of God. But I believe that I deserve to have the opportunity to defend myself against these accusations and the hasty actions of the diocese of Peoria."
Bush said he still says mass for himself in his apartment in Geneseo but yearns to be reinstated to public ministry so he can conduct sacraments for family and friends, regain his collar and be called Father.
"I'm still a priest," he said. "They can't take that away."
Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune
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