22 June 2018
CHICAGO – Chicago Public Schools correspondence provided to The Associated Press shows that the nation’s third largest school district gave a former Roman Catholic priest access to its schools for months despite knowing he was forced to leave the priesthood for sexually abusing a boy of 6 when he was around 15.
Only after the victim and the AP asked why the district let former cleric Bruce Wellems enter schools as part of alternative-schooling programs he oversees, did the nation’s third-largest school district recently ban him.
Criticism that the district hasn’t done enough to protect 370,000 students at nearly 650 schools from sexual misconduct intensified after a June 8 article in the Chicago Tribune, which reported CPS didn’t adequately vet its own employees and cited scores of alleged cases of sexual abuse by staffers. Illinois lawmakers held hearings on the issue this week.
Wellems, 61, isn’t on the district’s staff. But he has worked with CPS as executive director of the a nonprofit Peace and Education Coalition, which runs CPS-sanctioned alternative schools at CPS properties for at-risk kids, including the Peace & Education Coalition High School in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. The AP reported last year that Wellems has remained executive director even after leaving the priesthood over the abuse. CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a statement to the AP Thursday that, in addition to the new ban on Wellems, the district was now doing a full review “to determine if an ongoing relationship” with the coalition “remains appropriate.”
Wellems’ victim, Eric Johnson, now 53, contacted CPS when he saw photos online of Wellems at district schools. He wrote a March 22 letter to district CEO Janice Jackson describing how he was sexually abused by Wellems more than a dozen times over a year starting in 1973 when they were neighbors in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Johnson was in the 2nd grade and Wellems in high school. “I ….. never will forget the horror,” Johnson wrote. He said his concern was for the schoolchildren: “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I have gone through.” Johnson provided all his correspondence with CPS to the AP.
Wellems admitted to the AP in emails and in a 2014 interview that he had inappropriately touched Johnson and described it as “abuse.” He said it happened twice. And he said he never again abused a child. Wellems has not returned multiple messages seeking comment over several days. Sister Angela Kolacinski, who answered at a phone number for the coalition, declined to speak about Wellems’ role with the coalition. “We aren’t interested in talking about those things,” she said.
An April 12 response to Johnson’s letter from CPS deputy general counsel James Ciesil, who said he was responding on Jackson’s behalf, did not heed Johnson’s call at the time for a full ban on Wellems, saying only that CPS would “restrict and closely monitor” his contact with CPS students. Johnson was first informed in a letter he received early this month that CPS had reconsidered.
The AP first sought comment from CPS on May 2 and repeated its request over several weeks — but did not receive any comment. Bolton, the CPS spokeswoman, said in her Thursday statement that the April 12 letter to Johnson “was improperly sent on behalf of (Jackson)” and that Jackson “did not review or authorize the policy represented in the letter.”
Wellems was a popular, high-profile priest when he served in the 1990s and 2000s at Holy Cross Immaculate Heart of Mary in the poor, heavily Latino Back of the Yards, often praised for programs to help teenagers stay out of street gangs. He retains some support, including through a website, www.ISupportBruceWellems.com. Backers say he shouldn’t be ostracized for something that happened so long ago. Wellems belonged to the Claretians Roman Catholic order and resigned from the priesthood early last year. It was one of Johnson’s conditions to settle a lawsuit against the order for $25,000.
A letter on the ban was hand-delivered to Wellems, said Bolton. And all principals were notified “that they must not permit Wellems on school property.”
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Back of the Yards priest who admitted to sexual misconduct as teenager gives up collar
The Chicago Tribune
18 July 2017
A popular Back of the Yards priest who admitted to sexual misconduct as a teenager has left his Roman Catholic religious order and asked the pope to remove him from the priesthood, according to a letter from the lawyer for the Claretian Missionaries provided as part of a legal settlement.
Bruce Wellems, a former priest at Holy Cross Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, who acknowledged that decades ago, when he was 15, he abused a 7-year-old boy, resigned from the Claretians in the past year, after the victim sued the order.
The victim, Eric Johnson, now 52, said Wellems abused him multiple times when Johnson was 7 years old.
“I could have chosen to remain anonymous, but I did not, which was not easy for my family nor myself. Yet I continue to push for justice,” he said. “He is a danger to the kids and the community.”
Wellems, 60, was barred from active ministry in the Chicago Archdiocese last year after an independent review board uncovered “additional facts that weren’t previously available.” It is unclear whether the review disclosed an additional victim.
He now serves as the executive director of the Peace and Education Coalition, a nonprofit that he helped create to organize summits and offer scholarships for at-risk youth in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.
Wellems could not be reached for comment. In an interview with the Tribune last year, he admitted to committing abuse as a minor.
“These allegations had nothing to do with who I was as a person,” Wellems said in a Tribune article published last year. “In my adult life I’ve done nothing against children. There’s nothing that’s ever come up.”
Although Johnson feels somewhat relieved that Wellems no longer wears a collar, the fact that the church won’t confirm or deny whether there’s another victim and that Wellems still oversees an organization involved with young people still bothers him.
“I definitely think they’ve taken away the power of his priesthood,” Johnson said. “That was one of my main goals. … I’ve done everything I can now. It’s up to others to watch him.”
Members of the board of the Peace and Education Coalition declined to comment without Wellems’ permission.
Over the past 30 years, Wellems has become a champion for young Latinos. Several years after his ordination in 1986, the Claretians moved him to Holy Cross Immaculate Heart of Mary parish, where he worked with at-risk youths in the neighborhood.
When Chicago Public Schools adopted a “one strike, you’re out” policy —expelling students for offenses such as weapon possession, drug use and gang affiliation — Wellems helped establish two alternative schools, which have become two campuses of the Peace and Education Coalition Accelerated High School, both Chicago public schools.
In 1995, Johnson reached out to the Chicago Archdiocese to make officials aware of the priest’s history. The archdiocese referred his complaint to the Claretians, who confronted the priest. Wellems confirmed that Johnson was telling the truth, though his recollection of the details and how long the abuse lasted differs from Johnson’s.
He went through clinical assessments and entered counseling before the Claretians cleared him to return. Then-Cardinal Joseph Bernardin accepted the determination in July 1996 and restored Wellems’ faculties to wear a collar and serve as a priest.
In 2012, the Claretians transferred Wellems to San Gabriel Mission in Los Angeles and promoted him to prefect of the apostolate for the Claretian Missionaries, a position in the Claretian hierarchy. But in 2014, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez removed him from ministry after learning about his prior sexual misconduct as a juvenile. Wellems returned to his former Chicago neighborhood to resume work as a youth advocate and activist.
Earlier this year, the California mission invited Wellems back to receive an award. Johnson’s protests prompted the mission to cancel the celebration and prompted the Claretians to accelerate discussions to reach a settlement, Johnson said. As part of that settlement, Richard Leamy, an attorney for the Claretians, produced a letter proving Wellems had resigned and petitioned Pope Francis for removal. The Claretians also agreed to put $25,000 toward legal expenses.
Despite Johnson’s insistence during settlement negotiations, the order still has not made the names of credibly accused priests available to the public.