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Survivor Narratives

Joseph Marcel Lessard

Father Joseph Lessard arrived in the Diocese of Rockford in 1987. The letter from the Diocese of Phoenix introducing him said nothing about the reason he could no longer stay in Arizona—a conviction for sexually abusing a boy less than two years earlier. Documents in the Diocese of Rockford’s files indicate it was aware of Lessard’s past yet took him in anyway. It allowed him to work as a hospital chaplain and also live in the rectory of a parish where he assisted with communion. Private notes quote Bishop Arthur O’Neill of Rockford providing a chilling justification for accepting Lessard despite his criminal conviction for child sex abuse: “We have to take some in since we have some too.”

In December 1987, Bishop Thomas O’Brien of Phoenix wrote about Lessard to Bishop O’Neill of Rockford. Bishop O’Brien, who would later admit to a Phoenix prosecutor that he knowingly transferred clergy accused of abuse, began the letter as if the two men had already started a conversation about the wayward priest: “I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that Rev. Joseph Lessard has my permission to work at the Mercy Center for Health Care Services in Aurora, Illinois.” Bishop O’Brien continued: “I trust that you have been briefed by Rev. Hoffmann concerning the circumstances why Fr. Lessard cannot work in this Diocese.” A handwritten note on the copy of this letter kept in the Diocese of Rockford’s internal files states simply: “Yes.” Bishop O’Brien closed his letter by telling Bishop O’Neill that “considering these circumstances, I appreciate you affording Father Lessard this opportunity to continue his priestly ministry.”

What were these cryptic “circumstances”? In 1986, Lessard had been arrested in Arizona for sexually abusing a 13 year old boy, reportedly while the boy’s parents slept in a room next door. Bishop O’Brien was well-aware of this fact. According to news reports on court proceedings, he told investigators he knew of the incident but refused to cooperate because, he claimed, Lessard had spoken about it to him in a confessional setting. Instead, Bishop O’Brien reportedly wrote a letter to the judge in Lessard’s case requesting leniency. And indeed, Lessard’s crime was downgraded to a misdemeanor and he was sentenced to just three years of probation. Now, Bishop O’Brien was seeking to ship Lessard off to the Diocese of Rockford without explicitly explaining why—or at least without doing so in his formal communications.

Private notes quote Bishop Arthur O’Neill of Rockford providing a chilling justification for accepting Lessard despite his criminal conviction for child sex abuse: “We have to take some in since we have some too.”

Bishop O’Neill responded to Bishop O’Brien’s letter that same month by confirming he had discussed Lessard’s “background” with Hoffman, his vicar for clergy. From there, Lessard appears to have gone to work as a chaplain at Mercy Center in Aurora. He lived at the rectory of Holy Angels, also in Aurora.

But nearly six years later, in autumn 1993, Bishop O’Brien was facing a crisis in Phoenix. A local priest had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for his sexual abuse of nearly two dozen children, and the family of one abused child was reportedly considering litigation against the diocese. That November, Bishop O’Brien wrote Bishop O’Neill again. He said he had been “reviewing” Lessard’s “situation,” including letters and calls with a Rockford pastor and a nun at Mercy Center. “They inform me that precautions are taken to avoid any association with children and young teens,” Bishop O’Brien wrote, adding that a psychological evaluation of Lessard reported that “he will never again act out sexually with a minor.” “The fact that a number of people are aware of his situation” was helpful, Bishop O’Brien concluded. “Father Lessard could benefit from periodic affirmation.”

The Diocese of Rockford’s files do not contain any response from Bishop O’Neill, whose tenure as bishop ended the following year in 1994. However, after Bishop Thomas Doran took over, his administration appears to have become alarmed—at least privately—about Lessard’s presence in the diocese. Rockford’s vicar general wrote a letter in July 1994 to Hoffman—the priest who years before had briefed Bishop O’Neill on Lessard’s “circumstances.” The vicar explained “[a] matter of some importance has surfaced in the Aurora area” and “[t]here is a need to know what Bishop O’Brien meant when he referred to you knowing the circumstances as to why Father Lessard could not continue in the Diocese of Phoenix.”

Handwritten notes attached to the letter appear to reflect a subsequent conversation between the vicar general and Hoffman. The notes state Lessard “began treatment in home dioc[ese] + was cleared to seek outside job; as [Bishop] O’Neill said, ‘We have to take some in since we have some too.’” In other words, it was only fair for the Diocese of Rockford to provide refuge to child-abusing priests without informing the public—perhaps because there already were such priests living in the diocese, or perhaps because it too wished to unload its problem priests onto other dioceses.

It seems Lessard himself soon caught wind of the new bishop’s growing awareness of his presence in the diocese. He wrote Bishop Doran in August 1994 that “it is necessary that I discuss with you the personal matters which brought me to your diocese.” Lessard noted that he had “been ministering in your diocese for seven years,” including assisting the pastor and associate pastor at Holy Angels “on a regular basis.” A memorandum about Lessard’s August 1994 meeting with Bishop Doran indicates Lessard was allowed to continue ministering as a chaplain at the Mercy Center and living at the Holy Angels rectory. Lessard agreed to sell a condominium he owned by the end of the year, which the memo stated “is meant to preempt any insinuation of objectionable behavior.” The memo insisted there had “been no untoward incidents involving Father Lessard” but did not reference the existence of any investigation or other inquiry. Lessard also had to sign a form in December 1995 indicating that he would abide by the diocese’s sexual misconduct norms.

In early 2001, Bishop Doran informed Bishop O’Brien that Lessard had resigned from his chaplaincy at Mercy Center and had until the end of March to leave his residence in the diocese. The Rockford bishop did not explain what had happened; he simply said he hoped Lessard would contact the Phoenix bishop “with a further explanation.” The following year, Lessard was permanently removed from the ministry—27 years after the disgraced priest’s conviction for sexually abusing a 13 year old boy.

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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.*