Irish Christian Brothers fall short on revealing true extent of sexual abuse by its members
The Catholic religious order, which runs two high schools in the Chicago area, agreed to reforms as it faced bankruptcy as a result of sex abuse lawsuits. But its transparency is limited.
Deluged with child sex abuse lawsuits that threatened its finances, the Irish Christian Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011.
As part of a bankruptcy reorganization plan a judge later approved, the Catholic religious order — which runs Brother Rice High School on the Far Southwest Side, St. Laurence High School in Burbank and 13 other high schools around the United States — set aside millions of dollars for victims.
It also agreed to make public a list of its members accused of having molested kids and other reforms — but only the names of those accused of at least two instances of child sex abuse.
It could reveal the names of members who have faced a single accusation and detail where those accused of abuse were serving at the time, as some other orders and many Catholic dioceses have done. But it won’t.
The online listing — created in 2014 and most recently updated last year — now includes the names of 49 current, former and deceased members. At least a dozen of the 49 men served at some point in the Chicago area, according to the Minnesota law firm run by Jeff Anderson, who has filed numerous lawsuits over clergy sexual abuse of children.
Based on interviews, court records and news accounts, the Chicago Sun-Times found eight other Irish Christian Brothers who served in the Chicago area who were accused of child sexual abuse and aren’t on the list.
Among them is Karl Walczak, who was accused in 2012 of sexually abusing a boy in the 1970s at Brother Rice, which he helped run for more than a decade. When the accusation came to light, Walczak was principal of O’Dea High School in Seattle, a Catholic institution he resigned from, though he said he was innocent.
The claim was submitted as part of the order’s bankruptcy case, and the accuser “did receive an award, and it was approved by the bankruptcy court,” attorney Michael Reck says.
The order declined to discuss that case. Walczak couldn’t be reached.
“The Christian Brothers, from the beginning, have been deceptive on all the allegations of abuse, then they tried to quote-unquote rectify it, but they didn’t because they were not totally open or transparent,” says Bob Hoatson, a former Catholic priest who was one of the Irish Christian Brothers for 23 years and now runs a New Jersey not-for-profit called Road to Recovery that helps victims of sexual abuse and their families.
“They are still leaving off names of those with allegations against them,” Hoatson said.
The order — which also formerly ran Leo High School on the South Side — won’t say how many of its members have faced a single accusation of sexual abuse.
Nor will it specify how many abuse complaints the brothers on its list faced — only that it’s at least two.
So you wouldn’t know from the list that Brother Edward Courtney — who served at all three Chicago-area Irish Christian Brothers high schools in the 1960s and 1970s as well as order-run schools in Michigan and Washington — was accused of being a “serial sexual predator” responsible for abusing more than 50 children, according to records, interviews and news accounts.
Courtney was to “have no contact with Rice, Leo or Laurence in any way, shape or form,” a leader of the order wrote in the 1970s following a series of abuse accusations.
Still, in what critics and court records describe as a common practice, Courtney wasn’t removed from the order or reported to the police.
“The culture of that order was to encourage them to transfer” from school to school and city to city, says Mark McKenna, a Chicago lawyer who has sued the Irish Christian Brothers on behalf of clients who said that, as children, they were molested.
Courtney was transferred to schools outside Illinois run by the Irish Christian Brothers.
“Despite having roughly 20 years of notice that Brother Courtney suffered from psychopathy that characterize his uncontrollable, violent and destructive sexual abuse of children,” his order “kept giving Brother Courtney access to children,” according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of three people who accused him of molesting them “many times” while they were O’Dea students, and he was assigned there starting in the mid-1970s.
One of those plaintiffs, none identified by name in the suit, said the abuse started with Courtney asking whether “he wanted to wrestle.” That “escalated” over time, with Courtney pinning him to the ground and “grinding his penis into” the boy “until Courtney ejaculated,” according to court records. “It got to the point where Brother Courtney would rip at” the boy’s clothing and “stick his hands” into the boy’s pants “to grope his genitals.”
The boy told the school principal, but he “rejected the report and responded” that Courtney was “just really friendly,” according to the suit. It said he grew “more violent, more sadistic . . . slapping and punching” the boy “in an effort to rape him.”
When the youth refused to go to a Saturday detention “because of the certainty of further sexual abuse,” O’Dea’s principal — a former Brother Rice teacher who since has died — expelled the student, according to the suit, which has been settled.
The Sun-Times couldn’t locate Courtney or determine whether he’s still alive. If so, he would be in his mid-80s.
Another member of the Irish Christian Brothers at O’Dea subjected the boy to “sexually motivated beatings” and harsh physical abuse, the suit said, describing physical punishment that, according to lawsuits, was a hallmark of the order. He burned the boy’s head with a cigarette and once forced him into the locker room to “strip off his clothes” so he “could spray him with a garden hose in front” of the class, according to the suit, which was filed in King County, Washington, in 2008, when the person making the accusations, then an adult, was living in Illinois.
Michael Pfau, a Seattle lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the Washington case and has sued the order repeatedly over other sexual abuse allegations, describes the Irish Christian Brothers as “among the worst of the religious orders in terms of abuse of children — and I’m including physical as well as sexual abuse.” In some places, Pfau says, “They carried leather straps, beat children with them.”
The Irish Christian Brothers member accused in the hose incident continued running another of the order’s out-of-state schools for more than a decade after the suit was filed. He previously was also the dean of students at St. Laurence.
When he died earlier this year, his order lauded him as a “stern principal” who “enjoyed good humor.”
He is not on the order’s list of members accused of sexual abuse.
Courtney and another brother, Ronald Lasik, are among those at the “top of the list” of the most prolific and savage sex abusers in the order among the 49 members listed, says Geoff Budden, a Canadian lawyer who has handled numerous claims against the order.
Lasik, who also worked at St. Laurence, was accused in 2013 of molesting two students there years earlier. He was principal at Leo starting in 1966 but then “vanished without a trace midway through” the 1967-1968 school year, according to the school’s current president, Dan McGrath, who was a Leo student at the time. “There was no announcement.”
Lasik grew up in the Chicago area and attended Leo, which the order left in the early 1990s and which now operates under different leadership.
From 1954 to 1957, Lasik served at the Mount Cashel orphanage in Canada, where he was accused of sexually abusing multiple boys.
“He was probably one of the worst offenders in Canada in the 1950s — an absolute beast of a man,” Budden says.
Lasik was convicted of molesting students at Mount Cashel and sentenced to more than 10 years in prison. He served less than half of that before being freed and deported to the United States.
He died last year at about 90 years old — and “he died a brother,” Budden says. “He was never drummed out of the order.”
One of Lasik’s victims, identified as “R.D.,” was molested “in a variety of locations at Mount Cashel including the farm, the Brothers’ quarters, the band room and the boiler room,” according to Canadian court records.
The boy was sodomized “200 times or more” and subjected to “other sexual activity including masturbation and oral sex,” records show. “Coincidental with some of the incidents were threats by the offender that he would break R.D.’s neck if he told. R.D. was between the ages of 9 and 12 when these crimes were perpetrated upon him.”
The Irish Christian Brothers physically and sexually assaulted at least dozens of children at Mount Cashel, authorities said, until it closed in 1990 — with the order and law enforcement accused of years-long coverups of what happened there.
Prior to Mount Cashel, Lasik served at another Canadian school, where he started what the school paper there said in 1954 was a student acrobatics troupe that he “took to the road putting on charity shows.”
Lasik is on his order’s list, which doesn’t differentiate among members who faced accusations that were found to have been credible, those facing claims deemed not credible and those facing accusations that weren’t ever investigated.
According to the order, “The merits of most of the claims were not tested.”
That’s largely because of difficulty substantiating sex abuse allegations involving brothers who since have died, says Brother Kevin Griffith, head of the order’s North American province, based in New Jersey.
Twenty-seven of the men on the list are dead, 16 are listed as former brothers, and six are still with the order, according to the order.
“It’s really difficult to test credibility when the majority of the individuals are deceased,” Griffith says.
Yet other male Catholic religious orders have grappled with the same issue — often, sex abuse allegations are leveled decades after the incidents — and managed to put together more comprehensive lists that include accusations leveled against deceased members.
“The decision was made not to test the merits of the claims for several reasons, chief among them the cost of doing so was incredibly expensive,” says Anthony Dougherty, an attorney for the Irish Christian Brothers. “Rather than spend money on testing the merits of each claim, the brothers took that money and put it into a ‘pot’ for distribution to the victims.”
The order “is happy to report that it is accredited for its adherence to the high bar of standards for child-protection policies and procedures,” Dougherty says. “All allegations against the province predate 1999. It is our humble view that the brothers have successfully addressed the scourge of sexual abuse of minors and is now a model for training, safe environment policies and procedures, preventive practices and education, oversight and outreach to abuse victims.”
Pope Francis has promised greater transparency since the latest wave in the church’s more-than-three-decades-old child sex abuse scandal erupted in 2018. In Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich has echoed that.
Only since those calls from the Catholic church’s leadership have many orders — which are semi-independently run — begun to open up to the public about their abusive members.
There are more than 200 Catholic male religious orders in the United States, some of them secretive about accusations of sexual abuse against their members, others more forthcoming, the Sun-Times has reported.
But even among orders that have created the sorts of public lists that victims’ advocates say are important to document the extent of abuse and help victims heal, their lists vary widely in the information they include regarding when and where the abuse happened.
And the Chicago Archdiocese’s list includes diocesan priests — those reporting to Cupich or his predecessors — but largely excludes order priests, even though he has collected information about them from the orders and though nearly all Catholic high schools in Cupich’s territory of Cook and Lake counties are run by or affiliated with religious orders.
The Irish Christian Brothers was among the first orders to disclose such information, though it agreed to do so only as a result of its bankruptcy case.
Its decision to name only those members who faced two or more accusations of sexual abuse wasn’t the order’s decision alone but “a collaborative effort” of, among others, “the unsecured creditors committee” representing abuse victims in the bankruptcy case, Dougherty says, “with the approval” of the judge.
The Irish Christian Brothers list doesn’t include past assignments of the accused men nor where the abuse was said to have happened.
Patrick J. Wall is a former monk and priest with the Catholic church’s Benedictine order who now works as an “advocate” for Anderson’s law firm, helping with clergy sex abuse cases. Wall says that, unlike the Irish Christian Brothers, many dioceses maintain lists of credibly accused clergy that include men who have faced a single sex abuse accusation.
Around the country, “There are hundreds of perpetrators with one allegation,” Wall says, asking why the pope hasn’t demanded consistency in reporting abuse by the orders, which answer to him.
The Vatican press office didn’t respond to questions.
The Irish Christian Brothers has long been identified with running schools. It says its mission is to address “the needs of today’s most vulnerable members of society” through “Catholic schools and numerous outreach ministries.”
The order was founded in Ireland in the early 1800s. Two centuries later, it “was marred when widespread and systematic child abuse was exposed in Catholic-run institutions” in Ireland, according to the BBC. “More allegations were made against the Christian Brothers than the other male orders combined,” and the order “accepted the findings” and agreed to pay significant reparations.
Among those educated in Ireland by the order was actor Gabriel Byrne, who has said he was physically and sexually abused by brothers when he was in school.
When the American arm of the order declared bankruptcy in 2011, Dougherty says it was because abuse “claims far outstripped the assets that the order had in order to satisfy the claims . . . . The brothers paid $53 million toward settlement of the claims as well as legal and other professional fees.”
About 30 Catholic organizations in the United States — dioceses and religious orders — have gone through or are in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings, according to Marie Reilly, a Penn State law professor who has researched the subject. Among them: the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
The Irish Christian Brothers bankruptcy shields the order from future lawsuits involving older claims in the United States though not necessarily the group’s schools.
Broadcaster James “J.C.” Corcoran, who spent decades on radio in St. Louis and grew up near Midway Airport, attended St. Laurence. He says that, as a student, he wasn’t aware of any sexual abuse but recalls “systemic” physical abuse before he graduated in 1971.
“You could get clobbered a lot, and you could get clobbered really hard,” Corcoran says, making a distinction between corporal punishment that was widely accepted then and abuse.
Corcoran says he was in a foyer after school one day when he made a critical remark to his friends about the upcoming prom. Lasik — who was in charge of the event — overheard him.
“Lasik came over to me and said, ‘Come here,’ ” says Corcoran, now 67. “He started hitting me with a closed fist. This was a grown man beating up a 16-, 17-year-old kid. He’s hitting me as hard as he can, slamming me against lockers. I was probably 5-7 and probably 135 pounds soaking wet. Lasik was probably 6-3, 250 — a really big guy.”
Under its bankruptcy court agreement, the Irish Christian Brothers are supposed to maintain the online list of its accused for a decade — until 2024.
“I can’t speak to what’s going to happen in 2024,” Griffith says. “The requirement is we keep it until 2024.”
Until then, “As other names of individuals come up with two or more allegations, they’ll be added to the list,” Griffith says.
Since 2002 — the year the Boston Globe published a series of stories about child sex abuse and cover-ups in Boston and beyond, spurring church reforms — new instances of child sexual abuse among Catholic clergy in the United States are much less common. But adults who say they were abused as kids continue to come forward.
Recently, there have been more disclosures of physical and sexual abuse by priests and brothers involving indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada.
Robert Brouillette, a former member of the Irish Christian Brothers, was assigned to the St. John’s Indian Mission in Arizona in the early 1990s — well after his order sent him for treatment for “pedophilia” and “pederasty” and “sexual addiction,” according to a now-settled lawsuit filed in Cook County in 2002.
Brouillette, now 79, “engaged in sexual contact with minors” in Arizona, according to the suit.
Reached by phone, Brouillette says he was unaware of those accusations.
“I loved that place,” he says of the Arizona mission. “The bottom line is I was accused” of child sex abuse at various times elsewhere, “but they were not true.”
After serving at the Native American mission outside Phoenix, Brouillette was transferred to the Chicago area and St. Laurence “to provide guidance counseling to students in a one-to-one setting, teach morals and theology and coach minor male students,” according to the lawsuit.
His order’s list describes him as a “former” member.
Government records show that Brouillette, now living in a motel in Montana, is a registered sex offender because of a child pornography conviction in Will County more than 20 years ago.