Priest who abused child is still working with kids

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Eric Johnson speaks during a news conference on Sept. 16, 2016, in Chicago. Johnson says he was sexually abused as a pre-teen by Bruce Wellems, a teenager who later became a prominent Roman Catholic priest. Johnson reached a settlement in May 2017 with the Chicago-based Claretians. Wellems is still executive director of the child advocacy Peace and Education Coalition in the southwest Chicago church where he served as priest for two decades. | Tae-Gyun Kim/AP

The Claretians Roman Catholic order has settled a lawsuit from a man sexually abused as a 6-year-old by a teenager who later became a prominent priest in Chicago, confirming in the settlement obtained by The Associated Press that the longtime cleric recently left the priesthood.

But Bruce Wellems, 60, still works as executive director of a nonprofit that offers youth mentoring, alternative schooling and other programs for children, according to a staff list at the Peace and Education Coalition. Its head office is also located in the same southwest side Chicago church where he served as priest for two decades.

The settlement was signed in May and not released publicly. It does not say exactly when Wellems asked to be released from the priesthood but it would have been since the lawsuit was filed in September.

The Chicago-based Claretians did not agree to one request of the now 52-year-old victim, Eric Johnson, that the order release records of all its priests credibly accused of sexual abuse, as several other Catholic orders have done.

While Johnson, a father of three children employed in the financial sector, told The AP he’s disappointed the Claretians refused to open their records to scrutiny, he said his main objective in filing the suit in Cook County Circuit Court in September was achieved: To reveal the abuse by Wellems and ensure he left the priesthood.

He said the abuse began in 1973 when he was 6 and just weeks before Wellems turned 15 when they lived in the same neighborhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Johnson says he was abused more than a dozen times over a year. Wellems would sometimes ask for sex acts if he defeated Johnson in basketball shooting contests, he said.

What Wellems did, he says, “haunted me most of my life.”

Wellems didn’t respond to recent messages seeking comment. But he admitted to the AP in emails and an interview in 2014 as the AP began researching the case that he had inappropriately touched Johnson and he described it as “abuse.” He said it happened twice. And he said he never again abused a child, and never as an adult or priest.

The statute of limitations on any criminal charges expired years ago.

Wellems said he was burdened by the shame of what he’d done and it was one reason he devoted his career to helping children.

“I never thought it was right,” he said. “I don’t think it’s me. The only urges I have experienced about children is revulsion at the thought of hurting anyone else.”

The 168-year-old Claretian order, which has more than 3,000 priests and brothers worldwide, has traditionally put an emphasis on helping the poor, immigrants and the young.

In the copy of the settlement provided to the AP by Johnson, the Claretians also agreed to pay him $25,000, a relatively small sum for a child-abuse case. The Claretians don’t admit to any wrongdoing. Claretian attorney Richard Leamy Jr. said Tuesday: “As the matter has been resolved, we have no further comment.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago said it wasn’t a party to the suit and added only that, “We refer any questions about religious order personnel to the religious order.”

Through the 1990s and 2000s, Wellems had the reputation of being bright and charismatic, devoted to a host of activist causes from his Holy Cross Immaculate Heart Church in Chicago in the heavily Latino Back of the Yards neighborhood. Illinois’ House even passed a resolution in 2007 praising him for saving kids from gang violence.

But Wellems’ response to the abuse shouldn’t have been to make children his life’s work, Johnson said.

“His self-prescribed penance of setting himself up to work with troubled youth … is disturbing,” he said. “I cringe at the thought of him being placed in the environment of his choice.”

Joelle Casteix, a western regional director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said Wellems’ employment at the Peace and Education Coalition pointed to a phenomenon she has seen before of former priests parlaying lingering good will in their communities to secure or keep jobs that involved children.

“The Catholic Church has long cut predator priests loose on the public when the church could no longer handle the liability,” she said.

So what can be done with ex-clergy young enough to work, like Wellems, and who need to earn a living?

“The answer has never been to turn them loose on to unsuspecting communities,” Casteix said. The church, she added, should “find a safe and secure place for offending clerics, where they can no longer be a threat to children and can live a life in devotion to prayer.”

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