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Parishioner keeps fighting to get Old Town’s St. Michael’s to ban homeless man who attacked woman in church

After Donald F. Johnson’s conviction, a judge ordered him to stay away for two years. But then he returned. Fighting to ban him, attorney Patricia Dillon says he threatened her.

Patricia Dillon, who has been pushing church officials to ban a homeless man from St. Michael’s in Old Town after he was convicted of attacking a woman there in 2018.
Patricia Dillon, who has been pushing church officials to ban a homeless man from St. Michael’s in Old Town after he was convicted of attacking a woman there in 2018.
Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

One day in 2018, a homeless man named Donald F. Johnson attacked a female employee at St. Michael Catholic Church in Old Town.

Convicted of battery and stalking, Johnson was sentenced to six months in jail and ordered by a judge to stay away from St. Michael for two years.

When the court order expired last July, Johnson, 63, started showing up at the church. He’d sit in the pews, hang out in the courtyard and sleep on the steps of the parish hall.

His presence alarmed a parishioner, Patricia Dillon, who asked St. Michael’s pastor, the Rev. Larry Sanders, to ban Johnson.

Dillon, an assistant Cook County public defender, had, on her own time, helped Johnson’s victim navigate the court process. She says it was wrong to allow Johnson back at St. Michael and that he might pose a danger.

In August, Sanders declined her request to ban Johnson from the church, she says.

Since then, Dillon has tried to get the Archdiocese of Chicago to act and says she found herself threatened by Johnson, who was arrested for assault.

St. Michael Church in Old Town, where Donald F. Johnson attacked a female employee in 2018.
St. Michael Church in Old Town, where Donald F. Johnson attacked a female employee in 2018.
Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

Dillon — who represents criminal defendants who can’t afford a lawyer — has had to show up for court, via Zoom, as a complaining witness, most recently this month after Johnson was arrested for misdemeanor assault.

As a result of that case, Johnson temporarily is barred from going near Dillon or St. Michael, 1633 N. Cleveland Ave.

Dillon says Sanders, his Redemptorist religious order and the archdiocese should have done that themselves.

“They neglected or refused to take action or take it seriously,” she says.

Sanders says he’s consulted with police and the archdiocese’s legal department, and has “done what I can do here. I think she’s blown this way out of proportion.”

Regarding Johnson, the priest says, “I wouldn’t say he’s harmless.” But the pastor says Johnson suffers from mental illness and is “not all going to be there, and you have to accept that.

“We’re supposed to be taking care of the abandoned,” Sanders says. “She’s picking on one of the vulnerable members of our community.”

The woman Johnson was convicted of attacking in 2018 says she’s disappointed but not surprised to hear of the priest’s comments. The woman, who spoke on the condition of not being named, says that, after she was attacked, some people in the community tried to make her feel guilty for pressing charges. She says that was among the reasons she quit her job at St. Michael before Johnson’s court order expired.

“If I attended mass there, my expectation would be that they would not allow someone like that to hang around,” she says.

She was working “closing up the church” when she opened a bathroom door and saw a naked Johnson, who “gestured her urgently” to come in, according to records Dillon kept, which were confirmed through interviews and court records. “She shut the door on him,” and, when he emerged, he “grabbed her by the waist and tried to kiss her,” the records say. She “rebuffed him, and then he grabbed her by the arm and tried to kiss her again.”

The vestibule of St. Michael Church in Old Town where Donald F. Johnson attacked a female employee in 2018.
The vestibule of St. Michael Church in Old Town where Donald F. Johnson attacked a female employee in 2018.
Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

He was interrupted when other people entered the building. The woman says he seemed to be on drugs.

Johnson, now being held at Cook County Jail, won’t comment.

He has arrests dating to 1981, including convictions for criminal damage to property and drug possession.

Dillon says Sanders’ predecessor as St. Michael’s pastor, knowing her legal background, had asked her to help the woman through the court process.

Johnson pleaded guilty to battery, a misdemeanor, and was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to undergo a sex offender evaluation.

He didn’t complete that evaluation and subsequently was charged with stalking the victim, sentenced to 180 days in jail and ordered to stay away from St. Michael’s for two years.

Donald F. Johnson after he was arrested this month for failing to show up in court in his misdemeanor assault case.
Donald F. Johnson after he was arrested this month for failing to show up in court in his misdemeanor assault case.
Cook County sheriff’s office

The woman Johnson attacked “was very traumatized by the experience” and ended up moving with her husband out of the neighborhood, records show.

Dillon says she was surprised to see Johnson at St. Michael’s last July 13 after an 8 a.m. mass and discovered his court order had expired.

“My thoughts were anger that this guy who hurt” the woman “would have the nerve to come back,” she says. “I also was concerned that he was going to hurt someone.”

She says that, though a few archdiocese employees tried to help her, she has faced months of inaction from church authorities.

Dillon says she first flagged Sanders July 19 about Johnson and, days later, emailed the priest how another parishioner, a former sex crimes prosecutor, suggested Johnson be told he no longer was welcome on St. Michael’s property.

The next day, according to an email provided by Dillon, Sanders wrote her: “Is it possible to get copies of the court order and the charges with his plea? I want to have them in hand if he [tries] to refute them.”

On Aug. 17, Dillon wrote Sanders that she saw Johnson at the church. “I’m asking for clarification of what is your policy position regarding Mr. Johnson?”

Six days later, Dillon says Sanders told her he wasn’t going to bar Johnson.

Two days later, Sanders emailed Dillon that he was referring the matter to Cardinal Blase Cupich’s “legal office.”

On Sept. 1, Dillon says, she had an appointment to meet with Bishop Mark Bartosic, one of Cupich’s auxiliary bishops, about Johnson but, when she called to confirm, was told there was no appointment.

On Sept. 3, Sanders wrote her, saying, “We have heard back from the archdiocesan legal department and are working with” the Chicago Police Department “to resolve your issue.”

On Sept. 6, she wrote an archdiocesan official: “For Fr. Larry Sanders to continue to allow” Johnson “to hang out in the church after his own employee was sexually attacked is unacceptable” and that it’s “also unacceptable that she was not supported by the staff” at St. Michael’s.

The Rev. Larry Sanders.
The Rev. Larry Sanders.
Facebook

On Sept. 19, Dillon emailed the official, saying: “I have left three voicemails with the head of Protection of Children and Youth,” an arm of the archdiocese that deals with sexual misconduct accusations. “In addition to the urgent safety issue, there is a complete breakdown in the archdiocese system. . . . Does the cardinal know about the dysfunction?”

On Oct. 5, Dillon spotted Johnson outside St. Michael’s as she left mass.

“I’m going to mess you up, b-----,” Johnson told her, according to an account read in court at a hearing this month during which his lawyer said Johnson suffers from schizophrenia.

Dillon pressed charges and got an order of protection — which police served on him Nov. 11 on the steps of St. Michael’s.

On Nov. 12, Dillon wrote church officials: “I never heard back from any of the hierarchy in the church including the cardinal and Bishop Bartosic after they were repeatedly sent the police reports, criminal history of Don Johnson and the statement” of the 2018 victim. “It is truly disappointing that after trying since mid-July 2021 to alert the church of the danger, no one seemed to care.”

Archdiocesan officials didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Sanders says he since has informed Johnson he’s not allowed inside the church but can’t ban him from the grounds outdoors.

The pastor says an archdiocese lawyer told him weeks ago he was drafting a letter to inform Johnson he can’t go inside the church. But Sanders says he doesn’t know whether the letter was written or delivered.