Father John Burke abused at least eight children and covered up sexual abuse by another cleric during the 30-plus years he ministered in the Diocese of Joliet. Yet he suffered not the slightest repercussion for his crimes. Two survivors of Burke’s abuse courageously came forward to share their experiences with the Attorney General’s investigators.
Like many survivors of child sex abuse by clergy, “Albert” was abused when he was most vulnerable and in need of adult protection. As a young child, his father brought him to a Catholic orphanage called Guardian Angel Home in Joliet; he was eventually transferred to the Fortin Villa orphanage in Bourbonnais, where he was sexually abused by a nun, and eventually placed with a foster family, where he suffered physical abuse. Around 1958, when he was about 13 years old, Albert ran away from the foster family. The police caught him in Saint Anne and detained him in the Kankakee County jail.
This moment of desperation was when Albert first encountered Burke, a member of the Clerics of Saint Viator religious order and pastor at Saint George in Bourbonnais. Burke ministered at the Kankakee County jail and, because of his status, the police released Albert from jail into the priest’s care. Albert stayed with Burke at Saint George for two traumatizing nights before fleeing back to the Fortin Villa orphanage. On the first night, Burke got into bed with Albert, laid practically on top of him, and rubbed his genitals. When Albert protested, Burke locked him in a closet for the rest of the night. On the second night, Burke got into bed with Albert and again rubbed his genitals. Burke told Albert no one would believe him if he reported the sexual abuse because Burke was a priest.
Sadly, Burke was right—Albert reported his abuse several times, to church officials and others, but no one believed him. After fleeing Saint George, Albert explained what Burke had done to him to two nuns and a priest at the Fortin Villa orphanage. They insisted Albert must be “badly mistaken” about Burke’s intentions and suggested the priest was just trying to clean him. Albert also reported the abuse to his aunt, who warned him he would be “locked up” if he repeated it to anyone else.
In 2017, Albert wrote Pope Francis to report Burke’s abuse. Albert’s letter was forwarded to the Diocese of Joliet and Reverend Robert Egan, the leader of the Clerics of Saint Viator religious order to which Burke had belonged. Egan spoke to Albert on the phone twice and shared that Burke had sexually abused other children; he also wrote Albert a letter informing him that the religious order knew of “some allegations of sexual abuse of a minor” by Burke made in Kankakee in 1985 and that “the Diocese of Joliet is fully aware of the complaints made against Fr. Burke.” But Egan did not offer Albert any counseling or other resources—and there is no evidence that the religious order investigated Albert’s allegations of sexual abuse by Burke.
Around the same time, Albert told a Catholic priest in Tennessee about the abuse and asked him for help managing the trauma from it. The priest directed Albert to Catholic Charities and advised that he would have to pay for his own counseling. The notion that a church official thought Albert should pay for his own counseling made him feel like the guilty party, not Burke.
As for the Diocese of Joliet, Bishop Daniel Conlon sent Albert a letter disclaiming any responsibility for Burke and insisting that reporting the abuse to Burke’s religious order “is the right direction for you to go.” And while church representatives in Rome asked Albert’s local diocese in Tennessee to provide him “pastoral support” and stated they “may conduct a canonical inquiry” into his allegations of abuse, Albert has yet to receive any such support from the church—and there is no evidence any canonical inquiry ever occurred.
In the 60 years since Burke abused him, Albert has been “ashamed and depressed” and experienced “uncaring and emotional stress as well as guilt.” He has panic attacks at night. When the Attorney General’s investigators told Albert they believed him, he said he was “tearing up,” grateful that someone finally understood.
In 1984, four individuals—two adults and two children—reported to the Kankakee County sheriff that Burke sexually abused them as children from 1980 to 1984 while he was assigned to Saint George in Bourbonnais. The Kankakee County state’s attorney convened a grand jury to investigate their allegations. According to news reports, one survivor testified to the grand jury that Burke had abused him “about 50 times during the past three years.” In January 1985, the state’s attorney charged Burke with two misdemeanor counts of contributing to the sexual delinquency of a minor. The case went to trial before a judge, who ruled that a 14 year old survivor was incompetent to testify because he “did not know the difference between the truth and a lie”—and, consequently, the survivor’s father could not testify either. The state’s only witness at trial was a 17 year old survivor. The judge found Burke not guilty on both counts. In August 1986, Burke’s religious order, the Viatorians, reached a settlement with one of these survivors for $12,500 and with that survivor’s father for $1,000.
In November 1984, the Department of Children and Family Services investigated the child sex abuse by Burke at the center of his criminal charges and issued an opinion finding “credible evidence of abuse or neglect” and child sex abuse was “indicated.” The Viatorians received this report and provided it to the Diocese of Joliet as well. Yet neither did anything. In fact, when Burke was charged in January 1985, Egan, the Viatorians’ leader, publicly attested to Burke’s innocence, announcing to the media that the “Viatorians have full faith that the allegations against Father Burke are unfounded.” However, Egan admitted to Albert in 2018 that Burke was an abuser. Egan’s about-face is representative of the Viatorians’ dogged insistence on Burke’s innocence for decades, only recently admitting to knowledge of his crimes.
After the 2002 Boston Globe reporting on clergy abuse of children, a series of survivors bravely came forward to the diocese and Viatorians disclosing abuse by Burke. One asked Viatorian provincial Charles Bolser whether anyone else had reported abuse by Burke. Bolser said no. That was wrong. Bolser tried to clean up his response in a subsequent letter to the survivor:
Perhaps I misunderstood your comment or question, but the fact is that there was one other accusation made many years ago, when Fr. Burke was still alive. That action was reported to authorities and criminal charges were brought. While there may have been other incidents, neither I, nor anyone else in authority, has ever been made aware of them.
But Bolser was wrong again. At this point in January 2004, four survivors—not one, as Bolser claimed—had publicly alleged abuse by Burke.
Next, in November 2010, an attorney for an incarcerated individual informed the Diocese of Joliet that Burke sexually abused her client at Saint George in Bourbonnais when her client was a child. In response, the diocese provided the attorney with Burke’s file and contact information for the Viatorian provincial. The diocese never informed the Viatorians of these allegations but rather left that up to the survivor’s attorney. Again, the diocese did not investigate the allegations—even though the abuse happened in the diocese.
Shortly thereafter, in June 2011, another survivor reported child sex abuse by Burke to the Diocese of Joliet. Burke abused that survivor in the 1980s, again at Saint George in Bourbonnais. The diocese possessed no other information on this survivor’s allegations, and it appears that the diocese again failed to share allegations against Burke with the Viatorians or otherwise investigate them.
“Lance” is another survivor of child sex abuse by Burke. He grew up poor in Kankakee, the youngest of nine children. His parents divorced soon after he was born, and his father was absent from his childhood. Lance’s mother became concerned about the lack of male role models in his life. She enrolled him in the Youth Service Bureau, which provided counseling and mentoring to at-risk youth. It was through this program that 12 year old Lance was introduced to Burke as a potential mentor. Like many other clerical abusers, Burke exploited Lance’s vulnerable situation as a low-income child in need of a father figure.
Upon meeting Lance, Burke went to his home to meet his mother and started calling him there to arrange meetings. Lance’s mother “completely trusted” Burke and “looked up to” him. Burke took Lance on frequent excursions where he paid for everything—restaurants, shopping centers, sporting goods stores, and more. All of this was a real treat for Lance. But there was a darker side to Burke’s generosity. He also would buy beer for Lance—and when they went to restaurants, he let Lance drink his whiskey. Burke also gave Lance amyl nitrate, known as poppers.
After a few months of grooming Lance to gain his trust, Burke asked if he was circumcised and if there was a girl he liked. Burke’s questioning progressed into showing Lance pornographic magazines. A couple weeks later, Burke and Lance were drinking beer in Burke’s car at a local park when the priest unzipped the boy’s pants and performed oral sex on him. Burke gave Lance five dollars and warned him not to report the abuse to anyone because it was “just between us” and “adults wouldn’t understand.”
Around this time, Burke stopped picking Lance up at home. The priest told the boy to meet him at a convenience store instead—because he didn’t want neighbors getting suspicious that they were spending so much time together. Burke also instructed Lance to lie to his mother about where he was going and not tell her he was with Burke.
Burke sexually abused Lance approximately 20 to 25 times from 1972 to 1975. The abuse occurred primarily in Burke’s car and also at the Saint George rectory in Bourbonnais, where Burke resided. Burke gave Lance money after each incident of abuse, which was a “motivator” for Lance. Burke ensured Lance was impaired through alcohol or drugs when abusing him. He also trafficked the teenager to another man in Kankakee for sexual abuse. Burke would bring Lance to that man’s house and wait in the driveway while the man performed oral sex on Lance; when it was over, the man would pay Lance 10 dollars.
In July 1974, Burke asked Lance’s mother if the boy could stay with the priest for a couple days—supposedly so Lance could help with some yard work and other chores. After years of abuse, Lance was terrified at the prospect of spending a night with Burke. He decided to run away, hitchhiking to Florida to stay with his brother. But Lance returned to Kankakee several months later, and Burke continued to abuse him.
When Lance was 15 years old, he tried to commit suicide. Before the abuse started, Lance was on the high honor roll and student council; while the abuse was occurring, however, he started to skip school regularly and failed seventh grade. Burke’s abuse caused Lance to feel “confused,” “scared,” “ashamed,” “worthless,” and “like a piece of crap.” He became a “recluse” and, as he put it, a “monster.”
Because of Burke’s abuse, Lance has had “trust issues,” “trouble socializing,” and “authority problems.” Lance has abused drugs and alcohol. He has suffered from hypervigilance, nightmares, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and high blood pressure. But, Lance says, “one of the worst” effects of Burke’s abuse is that “my innocence, my childhood, my puberty, my virginity, all of those were taken from me without my permission. I didn’t get to have what normal kids have as far as growing up and going to the prom and having dates. I turned very withdrawn.”
Lance was burdened with the secret of Burke’s abuse until 2018, when he saw media reports about the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical abuse of children. These reports made Lance feel like he “needed to” report Burke’s abuse to the church. He “was flooded with all these memories and confusion and anger” and he “wanted some answers.” Lance shared his experience for the first time in a Facebook message and email to the parish where Burke had been assigned while abusing Lance. The leader of the Viatorians, Burke’s religious order, called Lance in response and then met him in person. He told Lance that Burke had sexually abused other children and that Burke’s abuse of Lance was consistent with the abuse reported by other survivors. Lance reached a settlement with the Viatorians in November 2021. But the Diocese of Joliet did not contribute to the settlement or investigate Lance’s allegations despite that the abuse occurred in the diocese while Burke ministered there with the bishop’s blessing.
Burke was a supervisor of other Viatorians in the Diocese of Joliet. While in this role, the parents of a child sexually abused by another Viatorian in the diocese, Father John Beatty, reported Beatty’s abuse to Burke in approximately 1955. There is no evidence that Burke took any action in response to this reported abuse, which is unsurprising given that Burke was an abuser himself. Beatty proceeded to abuse at least one other child after Burke’s inaction.
Despite all this, Burke does not appear on the Diocese of Joliet’s public list of priests with credible and substantiated allegations of child sex abuse. Nor does Burke appear on a public list maintained by his religious order. A June 2019 letter from the Viatorians to the Diocese of Joliet recognizes the existence of “several credible accusations against Fr. John Burke.” Yet the religious order refused to explain to the Attorney General’s investigators why it deems this concession insufficient to disclose Burke as a child sex abuser.
As for the diocese, it will not add Burke to its public list because of an informal, unwritten policy that a religious order must first find credible any allegations against a religious order priest. The diocese refuses to conduct its own investigation of these allegations, however, because it believes religious orders should handle claims against their own priests—even if a religious order priest abused children in the diocese while ministering there with the diocese’s permission.
Burke’s case illustrates why the diocese’s position is untenable. First, because the Viatorians did not investigate or make credibility findings for any allegations against Burke, he can never be disclosed as an abuser on the diocese’s list. The diocese therefore hides behind the Viatorians’ dereliction of responsibility. The diocese’s own records contain nine allegations of abuse by Burke—and the Viatorians acknowledge several of those allegations are credible—yet the diocese still refuses to add him to its list. Second, and equally problematic, the diocese appears to have sat on some of these allegations and never shared them with the Viatorians. The diocese cannot place the onus of investigation on religious orders when at times the diocese does not even tell the orders about the existence of allegations.
While the diocese and Viatorians point fingers, survivors like Albert and Lance continue to question the church’s sincerity—as known abusers like Burke evade accountability on the basis of specious technicalities.