Chicago Episcopal diocese’s $750,000 sex abuse case puts Bishop Chilton Knudsen’s actions under scrutiny
She didn’t immediately call police after an 18-year-old told her he’d been molested by Richard Kearney, according to a just-settled lawsuit that also says Bishop Frank Griswold’s office ignored other suspicions about the predator priest.
In 1990, a youth minister at an Episcopal church in La Grange was concerned about one of the teenagers who frequented the parish — an 18-year-old who’d been living out of a car, “acting strange and doing a lot of drugs.”
She confronted him, and he shared a secret: He’d been sexually abused for years as a boy. His abuser was Richard Kearney, an Episcopal priest who ran his childhood parish in Oregon, Illinois, before moving to a congregation in Waukegan.
“I told her I didn’t know why I was acting the way I was,” the man later said, according to court records. “I was hurting a lot, and I told her about the abuse. She said that she was going to make sure that something got done about it.”
He said “she put me in contact with Chilton Knudsen,” a priest who at the time was a top aide to then-Chicago Bishop Frank Griswold and now serves on an interim basis as Chicago’s primary Episcopal bishop.
In the decades since, Knudsen wrote curriculum for her denomination on preventing sexual abuse and became a “certified sexual abuse prevention trainer” in response to a clergy sex abuse crisis that has embroiled Protestant faiths as well as the Catholic church.
But, according to interviews and a Cook County lawsuit that the Episcopal diocese settled in May for $750,000 without admitting any wrongdoing, she didn’t immediately call the police after the 18-year-old told her Kearney repeatedly abused him.
Though a church spokesman says she did contact the Lake County sheriff’s department within weeks, police didn’t get involved until two months later, records show — after the mother of two children called a child abuse tip line to report Kearney.
During those two months, Kearney molested another boy, according to records and interviews.
According to the recently settled lawsuit, Griswold’s office knew as early as 1987 that Kearney — who, after having been sent to a rehabilitation program, was arrested in 1990, convicted of child sexual abuse charges and “removed” from the priesthood — might have molested kids at Saint Bride’s Episcopal Church in Oregon, a half hour from Rockford, but did nothing.
After speaking with members of the parish’s youth group, one of Kearney’s successors at Saint Bride’s drove to Chicago to meet with an aide to the Episcopal bishop, records show.
“I told that person that I suspected that the rector before me had harmed at least one of the children,” that priest said in a deposition for the suit, which was filed in 2020 by another man, as a “John Doe,” who also says he was molested as a boy by Kearney. “Then, he suggested that it might be problems I was having there or problems being out there and asked if I would be willing to do some psychological and alcohol testing.”
The priest, who asked not to be named, says she was stunned but agreed. She spent two or three days at an inpatient clinic in Chicago.
After she passed a battery of tests, the Griswold aide said to her about Kearney, “I have this, leave it to me,” according to the records.
Demoralized, the female priest soon resigned from Saint Bride’s, which she’d joined in 1986 after Kearney’s departure for Annunciation of Our Lady Church, a congregation then in Waukegan, now in Gurnee.
There’s no public record showing Griswold’s office did anything about Kearney then or until 1990, before his arrest.
During that three-year period, Kearney kept molesting kids, according to court documents — including the man who filed the suit and a boy who was a neighbor of Kearney.
While a priest, Kearney molested at least 10 children, according to court records.
The priest who had warned the Episcopal bishop’s office about Kearney got a call from Griswold in 1990, after the 18-year-old came forward, records show.
“He told me that Father Kearney had been found to have abused a child at the church in Waukegan,” she said in a deposition. “Then, he asked me if I had any indication it had happened in Oregon.
“And I told him, yes, that I had gone to the diocese about this,” the priest said, referring to the Diocese of Chicago, the arm of the Episcopal Church that Griswold led and which now has about 31,000 baptized members, nearly 400 priests and deacons and more than 120 congregations in Illinois. “He told me he had never heard anything about it.
“After I had explained that I was angry that another child had been hurt because it didn’t have to happen, he told me that he would make some changes.”
Later, the priest learned that Griswold — who was presiding bishop for the Episcopal Church in the United States from 1998 to 2006 and has been a national voice on religious issues — “cleaned house” in the church bureaucracy, records show.
Neither Griswold nor Knudsen would agree to interview requests.
Jim Naughton, a spokesman for the Chicago Episcopal diocese, says: “I suppose you could argue their tactics. I don’t think you can argue” that they didn’t have good intentions.
“The driving thing was to get Kearney under supervision” and away from children, Naughton says.
The church spokesman says Knudsen “vividly remembers” calling the Lake County sheriff’s department in 1990 after the 18-year-old spoke to her on May 28 of that year about Kearney and that she believes that happened sometime early that June.
Why didn’t Knudsen call the police immediately? Naughton says that was because the victim initially was reluctant to talk to investigators, and she was trying to get him to do so.
The man — who now lives in the Chicago area and asked not to be named — says that’s not true. He says he was willing from the start to talk to police.
And he says he thought Knudsen, as a member of the clergy, was required to go to the police with his complaint. But clergy in Illinois weren’t required by law to report suspected child sex abuse until 2002.
Naughton provided a written statement from Knudsen that says she’s been “playing the tapes over and over in my head, and I honestly don’t know what I could have done differently.”
The Chicago Sun-Times couldn’t find any police or court records showing Knudsen or others from the church hierarchy ever called the Lake County sheriff or the Oregon, Illinois, police or the Ogle County sheriff regarding Kearney after the 18-year-old told the youth minister he’d been sexually abused by Kearney.
Asked about the former Saint Bride’s priest who says she reported suspected abuse to Griswold in 1987, Naughton says, “We have no records of it, and there were plenty of holes in the story.”
He says that priest didn’t remember the name of the Griswold aide and other details decades later while the lawsuit was pending.
Told of the church spokesman’s comment, the priest says, “The only way to discredit testimony is to say there are holes in it.”
Kevin Golden, a lawyer representing the man who filed the just-settled lawsuit, says: “A few years ago, my client had the courage to come forward about being sexually abused in 1987 and 1988 by an Episcopal priest named Richard Kearney. After two years of discovery and 33 years after the arrest of Richard Kearney, it is very clear that the Episcopal diocese ignored the report made by another Episcopal priest to the diocese that Richard Kearney may be abusing children. The church ignored the report, and Richard Kearney continued to sexually abuse numerous children.
“What is even more shocking is that a courageous college student” — the man who came forward at age 18 — “informed Bishop Knudsen that he had been sexually abused by Richard Kearney for several years. Bishop Knudsen and Bishop Griswold failed to immediately report Richard Kearney to the police.”
“They made the decision to send Richard Kearney to ‘sex therapy’ in Wisconsin and not report him to the police,” Golden says. “Sadly, another young boy was sexually abused in the time period between the report to Bishop Knudsen and when Richard Kearney was sent to ‘sex rehab.’
“Richard Kearney was not stopped until a woman from the Waukegan congregation came forward and reported it to the police.
“My client is ready to close this unfortunate chapter of his life, but he wanted to make sure that the conduct of the church is exposed, and hopefully it will stop this from happening again in the Episcopal church or any other church.”
The $750,000 settlement in May came just before Knudsen was to be questioned for a sworn deposition in the case.
The case also unearthed letters from 1991 from Griswold to a church member after Kearney’s arrest in which he wrote about Kearney: “As charges have been pressed against him, he must unfortunately undergo a public trial. I had very much hoped that by my taking clear disciplinary action in an open and forthright way the anger of a number of those whose children have been victims of his illness would be somewhat assuaged. Unfortunately, it was not.
“I am very glad that I was able to give Father Kearney a leave of absence while he underwent an expensive therapeutic program at a residential facility which attended not only to his illness but also to his spirit as well,” Griswold wrote. “As I think I told you, he commented to me after he came back that he was alive now as a Christian for the first time and that at last he had experienced God’s grace.”
Griswold also wrote that Kearney “has been punished enough just by having to live through these past months.”
Kearney is now 81 and living in a nursing facility in Maryland, not far from his brother and sister.
He was a subject of a Sun-Times report in 2000 that revealed hundreds of child molesters were living near schools in the Chicago area. At the time, he’d been convicted in Lake County of molesting teenage boys, sentenced to four years in prison and released after serving 18 months of that term.
But he isn’t required to register as a sex offender in Maryland, apparently because of how long ago his conviction was.
Reached by phone, Kearney says his memory comes and goes and he can’t speak with certainty about the past but acknowledges he molested kids and says he regrets doing so.
“Yes, it was like a split personality,” Kearney says. “I was convinced that I was in a loving, caring relationship.”
At the time of the Sun-Times’ 2000 report, he was living in a third-floor apartment in Evanston with his younger brother across the street from Lincoln Elementary School. He allowed a reporter in to his apartment and said of the nearly 400 kids in prekindergarten through fifth-grade at Lincoln: “I’m no threat to that age group.”
Kearney says he grew up on the South Side, the son of a housewife and a physician who once planned to be a Catholic priest in the Jesuit order.
Growing up attending the Congregational church, Kearney worked for years for the YMCA and briefly as a teacher at the Chicago Public Schools’ Van Vlissingen Elementary School on the Far South Side, according to records and interviews.
Kearney’s first assignment after ordination was in Hinsdale, then he was assigned in the mid-1970s to Saint Bride’s.
The man who came forward at 18 to say he was molested as a boy by Kearney says he first met the priest when he was 10 or 11, around 1983, when he was a member of Saint Bride’s, where he was an altar boy.
Speaking on the condition he not be named, he says the abuse involved “pretty much anything except” penetration and that it stopped after his Confirmation in mid-1986.
In a sworn statement for the lawsuit, he says the abuse began while he was attending a summer church camp.
“My parents started work very early in the morning,” he said in the deposition. “And, in order to get me to the camp, they would drop me off at Father Kearney’s house before they went to work. And then he would take me to the camp later in the morning.”
Kearney sexually abused him daily over two weeks, according to court records.
After that summer, the assaults resumed at Kearney’s home, according to the deposition, in which he said: “I was having trouble . . . in junior high school, acting out. And he told my parents that he was taking me there for counseling and to work with me.”
Also, he said: “He told me he had abused” others. “He would explain that he had done the same things with them that he was doing with me. I believe that his intention was to create a sense of camaraderie or to show that it was OK because they were mostly older boys that I knew and respected.”
When Kearney left Oregon, Illinois, for Waukegan in 1985, the victim said, “I was very sad . . . because he was one of the few people who routinely told me that he loved me.”
Though the man said in the deposition that he hated the abuse and resisted, he continued to see Kearney, visiting him in Waukegan at Kearney’s behest, including around Christmas one year.
More than a week after the man came forward to Knudsen, she and Griswold met with Kearney and he acknowledged molesting the victim and “others,” records show.
Kearney officiated mass at Annunciation in Waukegan the following Sunday, according to a Waukegan News-Sun story, though church officials dispute that.
Within days, Kearney was sent to inpatient treatment in Wisconsin, though, according to police and court records, not before he molested a neighbor boy twice.
The Waukegan police opened a criminal investigation on Aug. 1, 1990, after a mother called a hotline about her son.
On Sept. 11, 1990, a Waukegan detective contacted the victim who initially had come forward. The young man was attending college and thought the investigator had reached him because Knudsen had alerted the police and didn’t have any reason to think otherwise until last year, as the lawsuit filed by a fellow victim was pending.
On Nov. 19, 1990, Kearney was arrested, charged with two counts of criminal sexual assault and three of aggravated criminal sexual abuse, accused of molesting boys from 1985 to 1990.
Kearney was convicted of sexual misconduct, left prison in 1992 and at some point moved to Evanston to live with his brother.
Griswold’s old diocese hasn’t taken steps that many of his Catholic counterparts have taken regarding child molesters in their ranks, such as maintaining a publicly accessible list of clergy members deemed to have been credibly accused of abuse.
After a reporter asked about this, the church published in its newsletter the names of four clergy members with ties to the Chicago diocese, including Kearney, who have been convicted of child sex crimes.
Naughton says the “cases were all disclosed while they were in the justice system, so this re-disclosure is a step toward creating a historical record.”
Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, won’t say whether he favors creating a national registry of abusive Episcopalian clergy.