Robert Louis Kealy
Father Robert Kealy was an accomplished priest whose many pastoral and academic achievements allowed him to rise quickly in the ranks of the Archdiocese of Chicago—and become intimately acquainted with the most powerful men in the local church. He was instrumental in the church’s initial efforts in the early 1990s to respond institutionally to the looming crisis of predator priests. And Kealy was a big hit with his parishioners too. Known as the “cool priest” who drove a sports car and enjoyed an easy rapport with teens in particular, Kealy also charmed older churchgoers with his passionate homilies and respect for tradition. But ultimately allegations of child sex abuse would surface and cast a dark shadow on this formerly prominent priest.
Kealy was ordained in 1972. His first assignment was associate pastor of Saint Germaine in Oak Lawn. During this period, Kealy was a busy man. In addition to his regular pastoral duties, he also found time to head up the parish’s “teen club” and study for his law degree from DePaul University, which he obtained in 1976. He then left Oak Lawn to become a full-time advocate before—and then judge of—the Metropolitan Tribunal, the internal judicial branch of the archdiocese that primarily adjudicates applications for marriage annulments under canon law. Kealy simultaneously was appointed a professor of law at DePaul University and helped launch its Center for Church/State Studies. He followed this successful tenure with three years of study at the prestigious Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he received a doctorate in canon law. When Kealy returned to Chicago in 1985, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin rewarded him for all these accomplishments by appointing him to the influential position of chancellor of the archdiocese.
The chancellor of the archdiocese is the institution’s chief administrative officer. He is responsible for promulgating policies and procedures and recordkeeping and plays a key role in the archdiocese’s day-to-day operations and finances. During Kealy’s time in the chancery, one of the challenges faced by the archdiocese was to formulate an institutional response to increasing allegations of clergy sex abuse of children. In 1992, the archdiocese implemented its first formal policies for dealing with such allegations. Kealy played a key role in this process. He sat on the review board that evaluated allegations against other clerics and determined whether they should be removed from active ministry. And he was involved in overseeing the archdiocese’s monitoring of priests thought to have committed sex abuse of children. Kealy was one of the highest-ranking officials in the archdiocese. His potential might have seemed limitless.
But in that same year, Kealy abruptly departed the chancellor’s role. The story at the time was that he sought a change of scenery upon encountering “a strong desire to return to parish ministry and become a pastor”—“nothing,” he explained, “gives a priest a deeper sense of his priesthood than the person-to-person encounters whereby he enables people to experience Christ’s healing, redemption, and grace in their lives.” And that justification was not contradicted even by internal archdiocesan documents. The truth was known only by a select few in the upper echelons of the church. As the vicar for priests explained in an internal memo in 2000, his file on Kealy “contains no information explaining why he left the office” of chancellor. Yet in a conversation with his predecessor, the vicar for priests was able to discover that Kealy’s departure had been hastened by “a telephone call (and subsequent interview) from a young adult male who claimed that [Kealy] had made a sexual advance while he was at a party.” The episode caused “great concern to Cardinal Bernardin since [Kealy] was playing a major role in dealing with priests accused of misconduct with minors” and he therefore “determined that [Kealy] needed to leave the Chancellor's Office quickly and quietly.” The matter was handled by the cardinal himself “and, apparently, there is no written record in existence.”
So Kealy was sent packing to Immaculate Conception in Highland Park without any of his parishioners—or even most archdiocesan officials—aware of the reason why. He remained the pastor there until 2001, when he was appointed to Saints Faith, Hope & Charity in Winnetka. But just as Kealy was preparing for the transition, another allegation came to light—this one concerning sex abuse of a child during the 1970s when Kealy was just starting out at Saint Germaine in Oak Lawn.
The survivor approached the archdiocese in June 2001 and said he was a sophomore in high school when the incident occurred. One evening, Kealy invited a few teenage boys from the parish to come over to the rectory to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana with him. (In fact, the survivor said it was Kealy who first introduced him to alcohol and marijuana.) Around midnight, when the survivor and Kealy were alone, Kealy grabbed the survivor’s genitals over his clothes.
Kealy had a remarkable response when archdiocesan officials confronted him with this allegation. He admitted alcohol and marijuana were available in his rectory at Saint Germaine. He admitted to drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana there with teenage boys from the parish. He even admitted he drank so much at the time there were mornings he would wake up and not remember what he had done the night before. But he denied having touched any of the boys in a sexual manner, and on this basis the review board decided unanimously there was not reasonable cause to suspect Kealy had engaged in sexual misconduct with a child. And because the news of Kealy’s appointment to Saints Faith, Hope & Charity had already been announced, the archdiocese determined to plow full speed ahead—without informing parishioners even of Kealy’s admission that he drank and smoked with teenage boys on church property during his prior posting.
A few months later, however, the archdiocese was forced to come clean. The survivor called again and said he was planning to go public with his allegation. He also put the archdiocese in touch with a former classmate, who confirmed the survivor had told him about the incident at the time it happened. The archdiocese informed Kealy it needed to meet with him “immediately” to discuss this development. An internal memo by the vicar for priests records what happened next: “Without reservation [Kealy] admitted that he had engaged in sexual misconduct with [the survivor]. He said it must have happened when he was drinking heavily and had blackouts.” Kealy also admitted to two other instances of child sex abuse. Later that day, the review board conducted an emergency meeting by conference call, “decided that the case presented reasonable cause for misconduct,” and “recommended to the Cardinal that [Kealy] be placed under strict protocol.” Kealy quickly resigned from Saints Faith, Hope & Charity, and the public was finally notified of the survivor’s allegations along with the board’s decision to substantiate them.
But Kealy did not go quietly. A few months later, after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People at its annual meeting in Dallas, Kealy attempted to backtrack on his confession. He said the vicar for priests had misunderstood him when he admitted to sexual misconduct with a teenage boy, and in any event those conversations were privileged under canon law. He insisted the allegation against him did not fall within the charter’s purview because he had just been “horsing around” and there was no “intention of sexual gratification” on his part. He explained he had resigned from ministry only under the pressure of “media hysteria.” At the same time, Kealy was circulating among the broader Catholic community a critique of the charter’s procedures and, in particular, what he viewed as its lack of regard for a priest’s canon law right to protect his good name. He wrote Cardinal Francis George to express his concern that the archdiocese’s own procedures for investigating allegations of child sex abuse “are canonically flawed and contrary to or inconsistent with the universal law of the Church and its underlying theological values.”
The cardinal was apparently unmoved. In July 2003, he “determined that there is a semblance of truth to the allegation that Kealy engaged in acts of sexual misconduct with a minor” and referred the matter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome to ask for “permission to conduct a trial to determine whether [Kealy] committed the delict of sexual abuse of a minor; and, if so, what penalty ought to be imposed on [him].” The process culminated in a decree issued by the cardinal in July 2005 finding “Kealy engaged in inappropriate touching of a young man who had just turned 16 years of age” when both “were under the influence of alcohol and other drugs (specifically marijuana).” Because this action had caused “damage to the young man” and “led to scandal among the Christian faithful who are rightly scandalized by actions of their priests who engage in sexual activity with members of the faithful,” the cardinal removed Kealy’s archdiocesan faculties for at least a year, pending further review at that time. Before the year was up, however, Kealy resigned from the priesthood in April 2006 to begin work as a private lawyer. Since then, the archdiocese has received additional allegations against Kealy.