Written by Tim Hadac
Archdiocesan officials confirmed this week that they are investigating an allegation of sexual misconduct made against the Rev. Michael W. O’Connell, 56, who served as pastor of Our Lady of the Woods Parish in Orland Park from 1997-2012.
At issue is behavior that allegedly occurred nearly two decades ago at Our Lady of the Woods, officials said.
O’Connell previously served at St. Michael Parish in Orland Park from 1983-89, where he was part of a team that helped establish Our Lady of the Woods.
He currently is on leave as pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish on Chicago’s North Side. According to the Rev. Shawn Gould, administrator of that parish, O’Connell “denies this allegation.”
The full text of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s statement reads:
“Rev. Michael W. O’Connell has agreed to step aside from St. Alphonsus Parish in Chicago, following receipt earlier this week by the Archdiocese of Chicago, of an allegation that he engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor almost 20 years ago while at his previous parish. Fr. O’Connell has agreed to take this action at the request of Cardinal George and is doing so out of pastoral concern for the safety of children.
“The allegation was received by the Archdiocesan Office for Child Abuse Investigations and Review and reported to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the Cook County State’s Attorney. In compliance with the requirements of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the Archdiocese has also begun its investigation of this matter.
“This action is not a judgment of guilt. Fr. O’Connell remains, according to church law, the pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish; however, he has agreed to reside away from the parish until the investigation is concluded.
“The abuse of any child is a crime and a sin. As always, the safety of children is of paramount importance. The Archdiocese of Chicago takes all allegations of sexual misconduct seriously and encourages anyone who feels they have been sexually abused by a priest, deacon, religious or lay employee, to come forward. Complete information about reporting clerical sexual abuse can be found on the Archdiocesan website at archchicago.org.”
Archdiocesan Media Relations Director Susan Burritt told The Regional News on Monday that while the investigation is well under way, there is no rush to judgment and no way to predict exactly how long it will take.
“It will take as long as it takes until a decision is made,” Burritt said, adding that the Archdiocesan website is “a treasure trove” of information that, among other things, clearly outlines the process of how such investigations are conducted.
According to information posted on the website, “the Independent Review Board (Review Board) is advisory to the Cardinal concerning matters of allegations of the sexual abuse of minors against clergy of the Archdiocese of Chicago who are in good standing (i.e. active or retired). The Review Board consists of nine to 11 individuals who are appointed by the Archbishop. Six of the Review Board members are lay Catholics who are not employees of the church and represent one of each of the following backgrounds: a psychiatrist, a psychologist or social worker, an attorney, a parish council member, a parent, and a victim/survivor or parent of victim/survivor of child sexual abuse. Three of the members are clerics of this archdiocese (two priests and one deacon). The Archbishop, in consultation with the Review Board, may appoint one or two additional lay Catholics who shall be considered at large members.
“The role of the Review Board is to provide determinations and recommendations to the Archbishop regarding the fitness of ministry for clerics accused of sexual misconduct with a minor, based upon the standard of safety for children.”
Burritt encouraged everyone with relevant information about any situation regarding sexual abuse of children to report it promptly to authorities, including the Office for Child Abuse Investigations and Review at (312) 534-5205.
DCFS spokesperson Karen Hawkins told The Regional News on Monday that her agency is prohibited from commenting on the situation because it does not yet meet criteria of the state’s Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act — most notably that O’Connell has not been charged with a crime by the Cook County State’s Attorney.
DCFS describes itself as an agency that “receives, investigates and acts upon a report of child abuse or neglect every five minutes and child sex abuse every two hours,” primarily via its hotline, 1-800-252-2873.
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Archdiocesan conduct in the case has been criticized by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a group that bills itself as “an independent, confidential network of survivors of religious sexual abuse and their supporters.”
A statement posted on SNAP’s website reads: “Despite promises to be ‘open’ in clergy sex cases, Cardinal Francis George is not disclosing where Fr. O’Connell is now. SNAP believes he should be put in a remote, secure, independent treatment center so that kids will be safe. According to church policy, Fr. O’Connell should be suspended, not allowed to ‘voluntarily’ step aside (which minimizes his alleged crimes and enables more parishioners to assume he’s innocent).”
The response from Our Lady of the Woods Parish has been low key, with the only formal mention of the investigation contained in a three sentence post-script to the Pastor’s Notes page in the church’s current weekly bulletin.
“In response to the letter I read from the Archdiocese regarding an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor made against Father Mike O’Connell, I would remind people that any notes or cards to Father Mike should go through Our Lady of the Woods,” wrote the Rev. Michael G. Foley, pastor. “Please keep all who are wounded in your prayers and remember that the investigation has just begun and will take time. No judgments should be made.”