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.”
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?”