Priest Michael O'Connell to return to St. Alphonsus Parish

April 15, 2014 (CHICAGO)

Fr. O'Connell agreed to step down in December 2013 when a formal allegation of misconduct was made. The allegation of misconduct was from 20 years earlier when he was assigned to Our Lady of the Woods Parish in Orland Park.

Church officials say authorities found the allegation of abuse from 20 years ago was not credible, but the I-Team reports there is still confusion about the case.

Father Michael O'Connell says he did nothing wrong; Cardinal George and Catholic church officials say police determined the 20-year-old allegation unfounded. But on Tuesday, Cook County Sheriff's officials who investigated the case say they did not determine that the allegation was unfounded, only that there wasn't enough evidence to file criminal charges against the priest. Even though his hiatus is over, Father O'Connell's reinstatement has victim's advocates furious.

"I did not do this," said Fr. O'Connell.

A total denial from Father O'Connell in this unusual late afternoon news conference organized by church officials just hours after news appeared on the front page of the archdiocese website announcing that Father O'Connell was reinstated in good standing to his position as pastor here at St. Alphonsus in Lakeview.

The formal complaint made last December was that O'Connell has abused a young boy 20 years ago while assigned to Our Lady of the Woods parish in Orland Park.

"I've always followed the proper procedures in terms of being with young people," said Fr. O'Connell.

According to church officials at Tuesday's news conference, church and civil authorities "didn't find the allegation credible." The church statement contends: "the Cook County Sheriff conducted an independent investigation and concluded that the allegation was unfounded."

But according to sheriff's spokesperson Cara Smith, while the police investigation was thorough, it wasn't aimed at exonerating the priest and that no determination on the credibility of the allegation was made. According to sheriff's investigators, there simply was not enough evidence to go forward. Said Smith: "Unfortunately, we couldn't secure charges."

At the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, Barbara Blaine says she met with the alleged victim, now in his late 20s. Blaine says the archdiocese is reckless for reinstating Father O'Connell.

"It leaves children at risk and that we all have to be extremely vigilant now, both to protect children around him and that if anyone has information now more than ever it's time for them to speak up," said Blaine.

"I trusted that justice would be done and that the process would work and that the truth would come out," said Fr. O'Connell.

Sheriff's investigators say that in situations such as this, it is not uncommon for the passage of time, the dulling of memories and lack of witnesses to result in a case being closed without charges. But sheriff's officials repeated that a closed investigation should not be considered a statement of exoneration. The allegation was also reported to DCFS, but Eyewitness News did not hear back from them Tuesday.

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