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Survivor Narratives

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.

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.

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.

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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.*