By KEN TRAINOR
Ascension Catholic Church parishioners found the following message from Rev. Larry McNally in the church bulletin on Sunday:
“In the spirit of transparency and the parish family’s right to know … I received a phone call from the Archdiocesan Office of Youth and Protection. At a SNAP [Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests] press conference, an adult female spoke and said she was sexually abused by Monsignor John Fitzgerald in 1964. Msgr. Fitzgerald (now deceased) was pastor at Ascension from 1951 until 1973. The Archdiocese has paid for her therapy.”
The accuser is Gail Peloquin Howard, who now lives in Norwalk, Connecticut. According to the SNAP website (SNAPnetwork.org), “In 2005, [Ms. Howard] reported to Chicago archdiocesan officials that in 1964, as a teenager, she sought guidance from her pastor at Ascension parish in Oak Park, Msgr. John D. Fitzgerald, who sexually attacked her during that meeting and later he offered to pay her for one year of therapy. … The archdiocese has paid for Howard’s therapy.”
Howard reportedly did not come forward until her mother, Dorothie Peloquin Cahill, who worked for the pastor and considered him a friend, died in 2003.
The SNAP press conference took place outside the Chicago Archdiocese Chancery Office, 835 N. Rush St., on Thursday, July 31. Fitzgerald was one of two priests named (the other had no connection to Oak Park).
The founder and president of SNAP, Barbara Blaine, said Tuesday morning that Howard is newly retired and was in town partly to attend SNAP’s annual conference, which was held this year in Chicago, Aug. 1-3. Blaine said she thought Howard was looking for a way to go public and this provided an opportunity.
“Her concern might have been for others,” Blaine said. “She wanted them to know they’re not alone. She wanted to be a voice for others.”
Blaine added that the Archdiocese paid to fly Howard to Chicago in 2005 when she first came forward. They also paid for her therapy. That to her indicates they “seemed to believe the victim” though the Archdiocese has made no public admission in this particular case. And there have been no other accusations about Fitzgerald to date as far as she knows.
McNally said he appreciated the heads-up the Archdiocese gave him in this instance. They told him they would be making no public statement, but indicated that they consider the accusation credible.
McNally said he has received no phone calls from parishioners since the item appeared in the bulletin on Sunday. The only comments he received at church were variations on, “When will this ever end?” He said the Archdiocese did not direct him to put the notice in the bulletin. He did it purely for the sake of transparency.
Longtime parishioner Doug Wyman said his first reaction on hearing the news was, “I cannot imagine him being involved in something like that. I just can’t.” The John Fitzgerald he knew was distinguished and erudite. “After his sermons,” he recalled, “I would get out my dictionary and look up four or five words I had never heard before. The same with his weekly ‘Word with You’ column in The Dome.”
Fitzgerald, he said, was “ahead of most of us on the racial issue,” talking to homeowners and Realtors about the importance of integration. Wyman said he was very well connected and respected and knew where to put the pressure on those who were guilty of “redlining” practices that led to white flight in the 1950s, ’60s and’70s.
“He was very encouraging to those of us involved in fair housing protests and testing,” Wyman said. “I had real respect for him. This is the last thing I would suspect him of.”
John Dwyer agreed. He and Fitzgerald served on the village’s Community Relations Commission together. Fitzgerald, who was Cardinal Stritch’s secretary before being assigned to Ascension, had been directed by Stritch to work with, and learn from, Chicago’s famous community organizer, Saul Alinsky.
Fitzgerald, Dwyer said, “was my mentor. Whenever things got heated in any meeting, he was a calming influence.” He never saw him lose his cool.
The accusation is vague, Dwyer noted. “It’s a 50-year-old story. Who can defend him? I just don’t know. In my mind he didn’t do it. To me he’s a sainted man. Even if he had some kind of weakness, he finished well.”
Gail Howard did not respond by deadline to an email and phone call. If anyone has further details to offer about this case or others, they can call SNAP at 312-399-4747.