How one Catholic order closes its eyes to sexual abuse by clergy

Among Catholic religious orders in the United States that, like the U.S. church itself, are facing a national reckoning over clergy sexual abuse of children, the Claretians stand out.

The Claretians operate Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, 3200 E. 91st St. on the Southeast Side, which was the first Mexican American Catholic congregation in Chicago, established in the 1920s. Many of the order’s ministries center on children, including tutoring, violence prevention and arts programs.

Like other orders that operate in the Chicago area, the Claretians have faced abuse allegations. Six clerics accused of sexual abuse have served at some point at Our Lady of Guadalupe, records show.

Some male religious orders have heeded calls by Cardinal Blase Cupich and others to post public lists online of their members who have been credibly accused of child sexual abuse. Others say they are considering doing so.

Even among orders that do not, many still post information online on efforts to prevent abuse and where victims of abuse can turn for help and to report what happened to them.

Not the Claretians. In stark contrast to other Catholic religious orders, they do not even mention on their websites the decades-old abuse scandal that the church in the United States continues to be shaken by or how they have responded to it.

“It’s like they don’t care,” says Hank Estrada, a onetime Claretian seminarian.

Hank Estrada, a former Claretian seminarian who says he was groomed and sexually abused as a young adult by his superior.
Hank Estrada, a former Claretian seminarian who says he was groomed and sexually abused as a young adult by his superior.
 Provided

Estrada left the order in the 1980s. He says that was after he was groomed for sexual contact as a young adult by his superior and then sexually abused.

“It’s like ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ ” Estrada, now 65 and living in New Mexico and who wrote about his experiences with the Claretians in a memoir, says of the order.

The order has faced high-profile accusations of clerical abuse and was accused eight years ago by a national victims advocacy group of trying to bury its problems with one Claretian brother by shipping him to Africa and South America. That was after the order faced a “credible” child sexual misconduct accusation against him in the United States.

Barbara Blaine, the now-deceased leader of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said then, in 2013: “The Claretians are knowingly putting kids in harm’s way and breaking every pledge Catholic officials have made for more than a decade about openness and children’s safety.”

Barbara Blaine of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, in 2014.
Barbara Blaine of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, in 2014.
 Sun-Times file

SNAP called on the order — which has its U.S. headquarters and oversees a shrine in Chicago — to “permanently post the names of offenders on church websites.”

Eight years later, the Claretians have not done so despite similar calls by other church reform activists and by bishops including Cupich, Chicago’s top Catholic cleric.

The head of the Claretians’ American province, the Rev. Rosendo Urrabazo — who lives in Oak Park with other members of the order — and the order’s longtime Chicago attorney won’t discuss how they are dealing with child safety and predator priests, including whether they have adopted rules on when, how and where clerics are allowed to interact with minors, as many Catholic orders have done in recent years.

Also unanswered:

  • Do they submit to regular child-safety audits to gauge how well members are adhering to any reforms that have been adopted in the wake of three major waves of priest sex abuse scandals in the United States dating to the 1980s?
  • Are their clerics with credible allegations of sexual abuse restricted or monitored in any way in an effort to ensure they’re kept away from the public or children?

In response to interview requests, the order sent a written statement that says: “The Claretian Missionaries are committed to fostering a safe environment for children in all our places of ministry. We are accredited through Praesidium, a national organization helping religious and secular organizations maintain a safe environment for children and vulnerable adults. We are saddened and troubled by incidents of clerical abuse in our church. Any allegations of inappropriate behavior are dealt with very seriously in accord with the laws of the state and the norms of our own church. The Claretians express their heartfelt sorrow to and concern for all who have been affected by such abuse and encourage them to come forward.”

According to court records, attorney files and interviews, more than 20 Claretian priests and brothers have faced sexual abuse accusations, including six who served at Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“That is their ground zero,” attorney Marc Pearlman, who has sued the Claretians on behalf of clients, says of the Southeast Side church. “That’s the equivalent of their cathedral.”

Some of the reported incidents involving Claretian clergy members date back more than 50 years, but many surfaced only in recent years.

Lawrence Lovell is among the Claretian clerics who have been accused of abuse. Lovell, a former Claretian priest who lived in the Chicago area in the late 1980s, recently was released from an Arizona prison after serving more than 15 years for child sex crimes while serving as a priest.

The Rev. Rosendo Urrabazo, the head of the Claretians Catholic religious order in the United States.
The Rev. Rosendo Urrabazo, the head of the Claretians Catholic religious order in the United States. 
Claretians

The order also faced a Cook County lawsuit, settled earlier this year for undisclosed terms, filed by a woman who accused a now-deceased Claretian priest, the Rev. Thomas Paramo, of sexually assaulting her as a young woman at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. According to her lawsuit, the assault happened on the day of her wedding rehearsal in 1986 when he was taking her confession.

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