Fighting to be heard amid church's silence
Sister Peg Ivers stood up to pedophile priests, stubborn church hierarchy
By Christy Gutwoski
March 1, 2014
Amid the thousands of pages of despair in files documenting how Chicagochurch leaders in the pastshielded pedophile priests, one name emerges repeatedly as a persistent, but frustrated, voice for the victims.
She is, at times, referred to as Sister Siena or by her real name, Sister Ivers, or by the name used by students and parishioners, Sister Peg.
The trove of Chicago Archdiocese records recently made public tell of her first encountering an allegedly abusive priest in the 1970s when she was a young, inexperienced principal at a Northlake parish school. After her pleas for his dismissal were ignored, she eventually resigned in disgust.
A decade later, after another priest with a history of sexual misconduct was reassigned to serve as a college chaplain, leaders moved him again "due to difficulties with (Sister) Peg."
(See documents on Sister Peg's reports of alleged priest abuse.)
The files describe the sister later warning church officials about questionable behavior of three other clergymen. Despite frequent references to her, the records do not give her religious order or say what happened to this outspoken woman. So the Tribune set out to find her.
An important clue surfaced in a 1964 story in the newspaper's archives that detailed how sisters from the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary served as principals at some archdiocese schools, including one in Northlake.
Sister Peg was eventually found in a west suburb, living with 19 other sisters, many of them elderly, in a convent with limited finances.
She has struggled for five decades to come to grips with her experiences, but Sister Peg still has a resilient faith and a deep hope that healing is possible. She is still haunted by the past and harbors regret — that she didn't do enough, demand enough. But she prays the church has learned it's a grievous sin to protect abusers.
Experts say Sister Peg's efforts were courageous and rare, especially for that time. Little was known decades ago about pedophilia, and priests were considered beyond reproach. It was virtually unheard of for a member of a women's religious order to challenge the institutional power of the church.
Finding Sister Peg was just one hurdle. She has never spoken publicly of her struggles to be heard amid the silence that enveloped the abuse crisis. She wasn't especially eager to now.
"Nobody is interested in stories about old nuns," she said. And besides, what good did it do, she asks. The two priests she had the most contact with were recycled to other parishes, where abuse allegations later arose, a story repeated often in the documents. That stinging truth continues to pain her.
She reluctantly agreed to answer questions about the files — now public record — in the hope it may encourage victims who are suffering in silence to come forward and "begin to be healed."
Now in her 70s, she copes with physical limitations that belie her quick wit and instant recall of decades-old details.
Along with her fellow sisters, she long ago dispensed with her black habit in an effort to be more approachable in her work.
During nearly 60 years of religious life, Sister Peg served in two dioceses and held local, state and national roles in higher education and pastoral ministry. The trouble came early. It was during one of her first assignments that a seventh-grade boy with a disturbing story sought her help.
And, as the documents reveal, he tracked her down again 30 years later. He was among about 60 victims who reached a settlement with the archdiocese that included releasing personnel files of 30 former priests accused of abusive acts, the earliest of which date back a half-century.
Sister Peg had long anticipated the former student's call.
"With my last breath, I will remember their faces," she said of the children she believed were victims. "The greatest sin, in my eyes, is that these things were allowed to go on as long as they did."
The daughter of a police officer, Margaret "Peg" Ivers grew up with five siblings in an Irish Catholic neighborhood on the city's South Side.
She realized her calling early in life. After graduating high school in the 1950s, she immediately entered her religious community. For the next several years, she focused on education and theology studies before professing her final vows.
"I just thought, 'God's calling me,' and I went," said Ivers, who chose teaching as her vocation. "I've always known this is where God wants me."
She was in her 20s when she first came to St. John Vianney in Northlake as principal. She was known then as Sister Siena, after Saint Catherine of Siena, which she soon changed to Sister Peg to reflect her baptismal name. The sister said she was strict but knew every student by name, rarely missed a basketball game and loved each child.
At St. John Vianney, the behavior of a young associate pastor who arrived in 1970, months after being ordained caught her attention.
According to the records, Ivers noticed that the Rev. Thomas Job lacked adult friends and spent his free time with male students. He frequently pulled the boys out of classes, had them stay overnight in the rectory and took them to his parents' Wisconsin home, records indicated.
So, the sister said, she knew what was on the 13-year-old boy's mind when he approached her in the hall in about 1974.
"I can see him walking up to me and saying, 'Sister, do you have a few minutes?" she said. "This kid had courage."
Later that day in her office, the boy told her Job was doing "something bad" to him and other boys, according to church records. She met with his parents, who doubted their son and made him apologize to Job.
But Ivers said she believed him, and after interviewing another boy with a similar complaint, she reported Job to the church pastor.
She is repeatedly cited in the documents, describing how she "couldn't get anyone at the archdiocese to listen," especially the pastor.
She resigned as principal more than a year later, after "the working relationship in the school became very difficult," a document said.
"I was often told I was overstepping my role," she said. "The pastor would just say, 'Everything's fine. Don't worry about it.'"
But four months after she left the school, Northlake's mayor and police chief phoned her. An allegation involving another boy had emerged, according to Job's personnel file. The child's parents not only reported him but the irate father threatened to confront Job with a shotgun at the jail where the priest was being detained, according to records.
Ivers was asked whether she could intervene with the archdiocese to get Job out of town. She again confronted the pastor, who finally was "forced to believe" the allegations and Job was gone the next day, according to church documents.
He resurfaced in a La Grange parish where more acts of child abuse were later alleged,records show.
Job was never charged with a crime against a child, but the priest complained to a church leader in 1986 that a "second incident" of sexual abuse of a minor would not have occurred had the archdiocese provided counseling after the first, according to the archdiocese documents. He left the priesthood in 1992 and was defrocked in 2010.
Job, 69, whose last known address was in Spring Grove, could not be reached for comment.
He is now among those listed as archdiocesan priests with substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct with minors.
The boy who had come to Ivers for help at St. John Vianney years ago called her in 2004. Now middle-aged, he asked a question that devastated her, she said.
"Sister, why didn't you do something?"
"It just broke my heart because he had no idea all these years that I tried," she said, recalling their 11/2-hour phone call. "The thing I feel the deepest regret is that no one believed me, and then (the priest) went on to another parish. ... I just wish I could have done more. That's something that still haunts me to this day."
She blames herself for not immediately going to police but questions whether it would have made a difference given the church's influence then. Even the boy's family didn't believe him.
The victim's attorney, though, insists she is a hero.
"She is an unbelievably courageous woman who tried her very best in a system that was not going to listen to her," said Marc Pearlman, a Chicago lawyer who represented scores of victims. "She went to the people who she thought would do the right thing, and she did it at a time when nobody else would, certainly not a nun whose entire life is under the church's thumb."
Message of hope
Ivers took on high-profile roles in higher education and pastoral ministry after leaving Northlake. Job was not the only accused priest she encountered. A decade later, she supervised the Rev. William Cloutier when he served as chaplain at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The archdiocese first approached Cloutier in 1979 with allegations he sexually assaulted boys, including one who said the priest brandished a handgun and threatened to kill him if he told, records show.
"Oh my God, my priesthood is finished," he is quoted in the records as saying. Instead, church leaders sent him to Massachusetts to work in a parish and undergo psychiatric care, the documents say. Cloutier returned less than two years later and came to the attention of Ivers, then the archdiocese director of ministry in higher education.
Aware of his troubled history, she complained, especially after learning college students had been staying overnight with the priest. She "begged" officials for more than a year to address the problem, one record said. Cloutier was reassigned in 1985.
"There was just too much nonsense," she said. "I finally got him out of there."
His next assignment was at a Skokie church, where more abuse was later alleged. Cloutier died in 2003, a decade after he left the priesthood.
There were three other priests whose questionable behavior caused Ivers to sound an alarm within church hierarchy. Their names are redacted on the pages, which mention how she contacted Cardinal Francis George in 2005 to warn him. Ivers declined to name the men since she hadn't directly worked with them, but none remain in ministry.
Most of the 30 former priests tied to the documents were never prosecuted; they were protected by church officials who thought at the time they could be cured with counseling and supervision. At least 95 percent of their misconduct occurred before 1988, church officials said.
The archdiocese plans to release more records, focusing on about three dozen other priests with substantiated abuse allegations.
Systemic reforms that began more than two decades ago include a zero-tolerance policy and prevention programs that involve mandated-reporting training, background checks and ministry to victims, according to the archdiocese.
"What happened was a crime, and it was a sin," Bishop Francis Kane, vicar general, said recently. "Things have changed. If someone makes an allegation, we treat it far, far differently than it would have (been) in the past. We have come up with a system, and we're getting better."
Ivers witnessed firsthand how church leaders struggled to accept that men they had ordained and cared for as sons could commit such monstrous acts.
Despite the darkness revealed in the files, there were many heroes and heroines who found ways — perhaps more quietly than she — to protect children, Ivers said. She also noted that she has known many honorable priests and remains close to some of them.
Nowadays, illness and physical limitations have slowed Ivers, but she tries to stay active.
When she was young, in the mid-1960s, there were an estimated 180,000 American Catholic sisters. Their numbers have dwindled to fewer than 52,000, creating a financial hardship felt in orders across the country. The sisters are struggling to hold on to their convent.
Some Catholics deeply troubled by the priest-abuse crisis have sought her counsel. Asked whether her own faith has been shaken, Ivers does not hesitate.
"My faith is in God," she said. "My faith is not in an institutional church."
The church, she said, is made up of human beings, who can fail.
"My hope is that people will not give up on God, and the church, because there were many good people trying to do the right thing."