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Survivor Narratives

Arno Dennerlein

Like many survivors of clergy abuse, “Carl” kept it secret for years; he only felt comfortable reporting it upon learning of the Attorney General’s investigation. Carl was close with Father Arno Dennerlein while serving as an altar server at Saint Patrick in Joliet. In 1973, Carl was 14 years old and would regularly spend time with Dennerlein in the Saint Patrick rectory. During one visit to Dennerlein’s private sitting room, the priest heard the boy’s confession—a sacrament, or sacred ritual, in which a person discloses “sins.” Carl confessed to masturbation; Dennerlein responded by instructing Carl to pull down the boy’s own pants and underwear. Carl did as he was told. With Carl’s genitals exposed, Dennerlein stared directly at him and began to masturbate. Carl, not knowing what to do, turned his face away, “feeling bad, embarrassed, and confused.”

Decades passed, but Carl told no one about Dennerlein’s abuse. That changed in 2018, when Carl learned about the Attorney General’s investigation. He first reported the abuse to his therapist, who encouraged him to reach out.

As it turns out, Carl was not the only survivor of Dennerlein’s abuse. The Attorney General’s investigation revealed seven other survivors who told the Diocese of Joliet that Dennerlein sexually abused them as children too. The diocese’s review board considered six of these allegations and found one of them credible. Yet investigators appointed by Bishop Joseph Imesch later overturned that finding. The diocese never resolved its internal investigation, which sat for over a decade until Dennerlein’s death in 2021.

The first survivors came forward in February 2003. Two brothers reported to the Joliet police that Dennerlein had sexually abused them as children in the mid-1970s. Like Carl, the abuse occurred while Dennerlein was assigned to Saint Patrick. The police passed the allegation on to the diocese, and in August 2003, the review board determined one of the brother’s allegations was credible. Despite his “personal reservations,” Bishop Imesch reluctantly removed Dennerlein from ministry—even as the bishop insisted to the press that he did “not agree.”

Dennerlein appealed to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. In a jarring 2005 decision, this body concluded that Dennerlein should be allowed to freely “exercise his priestly ministry” and then retire without restrictions. That was directly counter to the Dallas Charter, in which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had agreed that credibly accused abusers like Dennerlein must be removed from public ministry. Fortunately, the charter prevailed, and Dennerlein chose to retire with restrictions.

That outcome was thrown into jeopardy by two “assessors” appointed by Bishop Imesch to independently investigate the brothers’ allegations pursuant to canon law. In 2006, the assessors overturned the review board’s credibility finding. They claimed the review board’s investigator had predetermined that Dennerlein was a pedophile. They also found there was “no longer any real danger of scandal regarding” Dennerlein and he therefore “could be allowed to return to ministry.” It is telling that the assessors’ decision considered the risk of causing scandal for the church—but ignored the risk of allowing an abuser to gain access to children. The canon law process languished for years and remained unresolved even when Dennerlein died in 2021.

Meanwhile, another set of brothers filed a lawsuit against the diocese in 2003 for sexual abuse by Dennerlein when they were children in the 1960s. At that time, Dennerlein was assigned to Saint John the Baptist in Winfield. Father John Slown, a Joliet diocesan priest who was convicted of sexual abuse of a minor in DuPage County in 1983, abused the brothers for years and introduced Dennerlein to them. The lawsuit was dismissed as barred by the statute of limitations, and the review board deemed the allegations not credible.

After these four survivors courageously made public their abuse by Dennerlein, Bishop Imesch took the time to respond personally to dozens of letters he received in support of Dennerlein. In almost all his letters, Bishop Imesch remarked that “this is a very difficult time for” Dennerlein. “Hopefully this matter will be settled favorably,” he continued. In other letters, the bishop observed that the diocese “had seven [previous] cases of false allegations” and insisted “[a]ll indications seem to be that Father Dennerlein is innocent.” The bishop also bemoaned that the “National Guidelines” of the church required Dennerlein to be placed on leave. “If it were my decision alone, Father Arno would be back as pastor now.” Essentially, Bishop Imesch made no effort to hide his disbelief of survivors—and took every opportunity to proclaim his allegiance to Dennerlein.

Another survivor came forward to the diocese in August 2006. He reported that Dennerlein abused him at Saint Anthony in Frankfort when he was just 13 years old. But the review board found the allegations were not credible. The Board fixated on the survivor’s “reputation.” It noted his “history of drug use, theft, etc.” Even so, the review board issued a cryptic word of caution to Bishop Imesch: “prior to Father Dennerlein being permitted to engage in even a limited type of ministry, it is imperative for you to review and take into consideration all of the information and documents regarding the five individuals who have made allegations against Father.”

Essentially, Bishop Imesch made no effort to hide his disbelief of survivors—and took every opportunity to proclaim his allegiance to Dennerlein.

Yet another survivor made a report to the diocese in early 2008. The abuse occurred in 1971 and 1972 while Dennerlein was the dean of students at Saint Charles Borromeo in Lockport. The review board found the “allegation could not be substantiated” because the survivor did not appear at its meeting where the claim was considered.

In March 2013, the Diocese of Joliet listed Dennerlein as having credible allegations of child abuse against him after the review board found them credible. However, because Dennerlein appealed that decision through canon law to church officials in Rome, the diocese’s list noted a “continuing canonical process.” The diocese failed to explain to the public the meaning of this phrase or how it is relevant when a priest is credibly accused of child sex abuse. Dennerlein’s canon law appeal was never resolved, and sat pending until his death in 2021. The diocese left Dennerlein in this separate section of its list until February 2021, after pressure from the Attorney General’s investigators.

As a survivor of abuse, Carl endured “years of guilt and self-imposed silence” as well as “the relentless feeling you’re damaged.” He has read about other survivors of clergy abuse coming forward with their experiences after “years and years” of bearing the weight of that secret—only to be “called a liar.” Carl questions, “Is it any mystery why guys drink themselves to death or overdose?”

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Terms are defined as provided in the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops Glossary of Catholic Terms, unless denoted with *.

Altar server
Individuals, usually children, who assist clerics during liturgical functions such as mass. Prior to 1994, only men and boys were permitted to be altar servers.*
The title given automatically to bishops who govern archdioceses. It is also given to certain other high-ranking church officials.
The chief diocese of an ecclesiastical province. It is governed by an archbishop.
Auxiliary Bishop
A bishop assigned to a Catholic diocese or archdiocese to assist its residential bishop.
The highest order of ordained ministry in the Catholic Church. The chief priests in their respective dioceses. Bishops are responsible for the pastoral care of their dioceses. All bishops have a responsibility to act in council with other bishops to guide the church.
A man who has taken vows in a religious order but is not ordained or studying for the priesthood. Sometimes he is called a lay brother to distinguish him from ordained members of religious orders.
Canon Law

A code of ecclesiastical laws governing the Catholic Church.

Highest-ranking Catholic clergy below the pope. Cardinals are regarded as the pope's closest advisors. Most cardinals are archbishops.
The chief archivist of a diocese's official records. Also a notary and secretary of the diocese’s central administration.
Clergy is a collective term referring to all those ordained—bishops, priests, and deacons—who administer the rites of the church. A cleric is an individual member of the clergy. Only men are permitted to join the clergy.
Confession or Reconciliation
The Catholic sacrament in which one makes a voluntary self-accusation of sins to a qualified priest in private in order to obtain absolution. The priest provides the confessor, also known as the penitent, with a penance to atone for sins committed. A priest who hears confession is forbidden from disclosing the contents of a confession to others under what is called the seal of confession.*
The personnel and offices through which (1) the pope administers the affairs of the universal church (the Roman Curia), or (2) a bishop administers the affairs of a diocese (the diocesan curia). The principal officials of a diocesan curia are the vicar general, the chancellor, officials of the diocesan tribunal or court, examiners, consultors, auditors, and notaries.
Dallas Charter
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People sets forth policies for each United States archdiocese and diocese to adopt as part of an effort to address allegations of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy. The Charter was formulated at the 2002 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, Texas. The Charter was revised in 2005, 2011, and 2018.
One of three groups that comprise the clergy, meaning those ordained for ministry. Only men are permitted to become deacons. Deacons preparing for the priesthood are transitional deacons. Those not planning to be ordained priests are called permanent deacons. Married men may be ordained permanent deacons, but only unmarried men committed to lifelong celibacy can be ordained deacons if they are planning to become priests.
Diocesan Priest
Priests under the direction of their local bishop. Most serve in the parishes of the diocese, but they may also be assigned to other diocesan ministries or released for service outside the diocese.
A territorial division of the Church headed by a bishop.
Extern Priest
A priest with faculties to minister in a diocese or archdiocese who was not ordained in that diocese or archdiocese. For example, a diocesan priest from the Diocese of Springfield who has been granted faculties to minister by the Archdiocese of Chicago is an extern priest.*
Church authorization, given by the law itself or by a Church superior, to perform certain official acts.
Members of the Catholic Church. Derived from Catholic teachings that clergy are like shepherds guiding a flock.*
Laicize or Defrock
The process by which a priest is returned to the lay state. It is sometimes used as a penalty for a serious crime, but also can come at the request of the priest. A laicized priest is barred from all priestly ministry with one exception: He may give absolution to someone in immediate danger of death. The pope must approve all requests for laicization. When a priest is laicized without his consent for a crime, such as committing child sexual abuse, it is sometimes called defrocking.
Any activity conducive to the salvation of souls. It can include ordained ministry such as liturgical leadership and administration of the sacraments, or lay ministry such as instructing children in the faith, serving the poor, visiting the sick, or being an altar server, reader, or music leader at mass.
An honorary ecclesiastical title granted by the pope to some diocesan priests.
A member of a religious order of women who has taken solemn or simple vows.
Ordination is the sacramental ceremony in which a man becomes a deacon, priest, or bishop. A cleric who has undergone ordination is known as ordained.*
A specific community within a diocese with its own church building and under the authority of a pastor who is responsible for providing ministerial service. Most parishes are formed on a geographic basis, but they may be formed along national or ethnic lines.
A priest in charge of a Catholic parish or congregation.
Acts performed to atone for committed sins, as directed by a priest in the Catholic sacrament of reconcilliation.*
Residential housing for clergy provided by the Church. A rectory can also contain administrative offices for a parish.*
Religious Cleric
Professed member of a religious order or institute. Religious clergy live according to the rule of their respective orders.
Religious Order or Order
An institution of men or women, at least some of whose members take solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and whose male members are sometimes ordained.*
An educational institution for men preparing for the priesthood.
A cleric who acts in the name of another cleric.*
Vicar general
A priest, auxiliary bishop, or coadjutor bishop who assists the diocesan bishop in the governance of the diocese.
Victims Assistance Coordinator

A diocesan employee who has been designated to coordinate assistance to survivors of sex abuse by clerics.*