By Pat Pratt
The parish priest of St. Jerome’s in Troy is named in the state’s recent sex abuse in the Catholic Church report, which alleges he lied to help a pedophile cohort get a teaching job years ago at a community college in Florida.
Rev. Kevin Laughery during weekend mass acknowledged giving a job reference in the early 1990s for Walter Weerts, a known pedophile priest with 22 victims who served in several Metro East parishes, but said he “did not lie” in doing so.
The Office of the Illinois Attorney General’s “Report on Catholic Clergy Child Sex Abuse in Illinois,” issued last week lists 451 Catholic religious figures who over a span of about 70 years abused at least 1,997 children across dioceses in Illinois.
Included in the report is Weerts, who following his ordination in 1960, served in Edwardsville, Granite City and Highland and befriended parishioners in an effort to gain access to their children. In 1986, he pleaded guilty to three counts of sex abuse and was sentenced to six years in prison, of which he served three.
In the early 1990s, the by-then-defrocked Weerts applied for a job as a horticulture instructor at Palm Beach Community College, where during his tenure he would eventually come in contact with middle-school aged children by giving class presentations, according to the attorney general’s report.
In the report’s narrative about Weerts, the attorney general’s office stated he was able to acquire the teaching position because of Laughery’s reference.
“The college reached out to diocesan priest Kevin Laughery, who said Weerts had left the Diocese of Springfield because he was changing careers; Laughery neglected to mention anything about Weerts’s criminal convictions because, he later claimed, he simply chose to answer the specific questions he was asked by the college,” the attorney general’s report states.
“Aided by Laughery’s lies, Weerts became a community college professor — and then finagled his way into teaching a class at the local high school and giving talks to middle school students. Some of Weerts’s college students even used him as a babysitter.”
During his comments at Sunday mass, Laughery said he was mentioned in the report not as an abuser, but for giving Weerts a reference. He described his inclusion in the report on investigative “overzealousness” by the state attorney general’s office, while also calling that work worthy and necessary.
“I am mentioned not as an abuser, but as one who, after one of our priests had served his prison term for his offenses, acted as a job reference for this man,” Laughery told the congregation. “The attorney general’s report says this man was aided by Laughery’s lies. I take issue with this statement, which I attribute to overzealousness in carrying out a worthy and necessary cause. I did not lie on behalf of this man.”
The Springfield Diocese, when asked for comment about Laughery’s reference for a known abuser, responded with a statement that focused on Weerts.
“We cannot undo the tragic missteps of the past,” the diocese said. “Bishop Paprocki and our diocese offer our heartfelt contrition and sorrow for the wrongs and evils perpetrated for decades upon innocent believers at the hands of clergy. The extreme hurt some of our clergy caused such as Weerts is a disgrace. We want to reinforce that the Diocese of Springfield pledges continued efforts to bring healing to the victims/survivors of this evil.”
Additional scrutiny by the diocese should be placed on the reference given by Laughery to the college, according to David Clohessy, a former national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Clohessy for years advocated for clergy abuse victims and is still active in the organization in Missouri. He said the diocese at minimum should suspend Laughery and hire outside investigators to determine the extent of his actions in helping Weerts obtain a job.
“This was not an oversight or slip up or innocent mistake,” Clohessy said. “He intentionally helped a convicted predator get a job around kids. That is inexcusable and all of the Bishops words and promises about reform and caring for youngsters will all ring hollow unless they back up those lofty sentiments with consequences to those who concealed abuse and therefore helped abusers and hurt children.”
The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for additional details on the reference given by Laughery. Past reporting by the Palm Beach Post, which covered the ordeal as it unfolded at the college, offered some additional information.
A January 1999 article “Web Unveils Teacher’s Lies about Past As Pedophile,” provided by BishopAccountability.org, shows when Laughery gave the reference, he knew Weerts was a pedophile who spent time in prison and a Catholic center for abusers in Jemez Springs, New Mexico.
“But when Palm Beach Community College contacted Weerts’ superior in the diocese, the Rev. Kevin Laughery said Weerts had left because he “changed careers,” college records show,” The Post reported. “Laughery acknowledged he did not disclose Weerts’ crimes, though he knew about them. Nor did he mention that the diocese had sent Weerts to the church’s rehabilitation center for pedophile priests in Jemez Springs, N.M.”
Laughery’s response to the Post at that time mirrored the attorney general’s report – he stuck to the questions the college asked him. “I answered the questions I was asked,” Laughery told the newspaper. “At that point, I was wishing what was best for him.”
Weerts would go on to become Teacher of the Year at the college, which apparently also did not conduct any kind of background check prior to his employment.
The day he was set to receive that honor, he resigned after officials learned he lied on his application about being a convicted sex offender. That information, according to the Palm Beach Post, was uncovered online by two students.
“Since this has occurred, we are putting that mechanism in place to do that (background checks),” PBCC spokesman Robert Cole told reporters at the time. “All employees – present and future – will likely face scrutiny.”