First reported 5/11/2010 1:55 p.m.

Rev. Larry McNally knew something was wrong when Rev. Larry Reuter showed up at his office on Monday, March 15 and asked to talk to him. He knew something had been bothering his friend for a few weeks. You could tell. McNally just didn’t know what it was.

Reuter was one of his most reliable “weekend assistants,” priests assigned to work elsewhere who help out saying Mass so the pastor isn’t run ragged. Catholic pastors are already run ragged in large parishes like Ascension where there’s only one full-time priest in residence. The church is suffering from more than a sex abuse crisis. There’s also a personnel crisis, otherwise known as “the priest shortage.”

“Larry was so good about taking extra Masses,” McNally said, “and filling in when I was on vacation. We would have coffee in my rectory on Sundays. The conversation was wonderful. He was very caring.”

Reuter that morning told his friend about an inappropriate relationship he’d had with a student at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, back when Reuter was rector (1975-1990).

“I thought he was gutsy to tell me,” McNally said and told him so.

“I had to,” Reuter reportedly told him. “I didn’t want you to find out from someone else.”

Reuter had spent the last 10-plus years filling in on weekends. He would also hear confessions (sacrament of reconciliation), including occasionally the first confessions of Ascension students, but it always took place in a public setting. Even in the sacristy before Mass on Sundays, other adults were present, McNally said. Reuter had no direct contact with Ascension School students other than that.

March 15 was the first McNally had heard about the incident.

“I had no prior knowledge,” he said.

Neither, apparently, did most of Reuter’s colleagues at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, where Reuter worked as vice president of mission and ministry. When they heard he was leaving, they threw him a going-away party. There was even talk of an endowed scholarship fund in his name.

McNally, meanwhile, was trying to figure out what to do next. This was a Jesuit matter, the archdiocese told him. The details had to come from them. But the Jesuits weren’t talking. McNally waited one Sunday, then decided he had to explain Reuter’s absence to parishioners. On March 28, Palm Sunday, at the end of each Mass, he announced that Reuter had been relieved of his duties at the parish. His uneasiness was obvious, the lines exceedingly easy to read between. The previous year, another Jesuit weekend assistant, Rev. Myles Sheehan had left to become a Jesuit provincial in the Northeast. That was cause for celebration. This clearly was not.

“I was thinking, ‘No one’s buying this. I’m not even buying this.’ Later someone said, ‘The big clue was you didn’t say thank you.'”

Parishioners starting asking questions immediately, especially those who were friendly with Reuter. Some were angry, rising to Reuter’s defense.

He told everyone that more information would be coming from the Jesuits.

But the information wasn’t forthcoming. Finally, he and a parish council member paid a visit to the provincial of the Chicago and Detroit provinces, Rev. Timothy Kesicki, S.J., whose office is located in a storefront on North Clark in Chicago.

“I told him I was on the firing line,” McNally recalls. “‘There’s too much talk out there.’ He said, ‘Larry, this is not about you. It’s about the people of God.’ I said, ‘But I’m the answer guy.’ He knew I was angry.”

Kesicki was new on the job, and McNally’s impression was that he found Reuter’s file and felt he had to act. A settlement had already taken place with the former student, so the Jesuits apparently knew about the situation for a while.

Kesicki agreed to explain the situation in a letter, which appeared in the The Dome, Ascension’s church bulletin, on Sunday, May 2. It said Reuter had “admitted that he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a young adult.” It didn’t provide many specifics, but it certainly got the media’s attention.

Which meant McNally was still upfront and center since the Jesuits weren’t talking much. Last Wednesday, he walked outside and found Dick Johnson of NBC5 News Chicago waiting for him with a cameraman. The Jesuits and the archdiocese weren’t cooperating, Johnson said. If he provided the questions ahead of time, would McNally be willing to go on camera? He consented and the segment appeared that night on the national newscast. Johnson, he said, was a man of his word, turning off the camera whenever he thought of a new question in order to give him time to think.

“The segment was fine,” McNally said. “I didn’t even get a call from the archdiocese.”

When a second allegation of abuse hit the airwaves later that week, McNally was more disturbed. Reuter had told him there was only one incident. He worried that he might have been lied to.

Initially, he felt mixed emotions – sadness and anger. “I was all over the place,” he recalls. “Mostly, I wanted to know, what are we going to do about it?”

What he wanted to do was be as transparent as possible so parishioners didn’t think he or his staff were taking part in any cover-up. In many ways he was lucky. This truly was a Jesuit matter and McNally genuinely didn’t know much, so he could be completely straightforward with people. He received a lot of e-mails, letters and phone calls from parishioners.

“A couple were angry, but most were supportive,” he said.

And though he didn’t mention it during our interview, McNally even took the time to write a note to one parishioner who had been a victim of priest abuse in the past (not at Ascension) to express his concern.

But McNally’s biggest priority was answering the two questions that always arise in situations like this: What did you know and when did you know it?

This past Sunday, McNally spoke again at the end of each Mass to answer those questions and talk about steps to help the parish come to terms with it.

A week from Thursday (May 20), the monthly “Holy Hour” (6 p.m.) will have the abuse issue as its theme. And sometime either before or after Memorial Day, he’s planning a forum with Marjorie O’Dea, the Jesuit province’s director of the office of victim advocacy, a representative from the archdiocese who has experience dealing with these situations, and himself, to give parishioners a chance to ask questions and express their feelings.

After 11 o’clock Mass last Sunday, three members of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) handed out literature in front of the church, summarizing the accusations against Reuter and accusing the Jesuits of a cover-up. They told McNally they appreciated his comments and his efforts to address the issue.

The situation was awkward because this was one of the First Communion Masses, an occasion for celebration, so McNally asked them to be sensitive to the situation.

“They were very respectful,” he noted.

The afternoon before, McNally said, he had gotten a call from the archdiocese warning him the situation might get worse before it gets better. But they didn’t give him any specifics. He’s hoping they were referring to SNAP’s visit, but he isn’t sure.

“The only thing that would kill me,” he said, “is if someone from the parish comes forward to say they were abused. That would crush me.”

Ascension did have one other brush with abuse allegations years ago before McNally arrived. If anything happened to one of his, he’s not sure what he would say.

“I don’t have the answers,” he said.

Ken Trainor grew up in Ascension Parish and has been a member of the parish for the past 20 years.

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