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CHICAGO – A 51-year-old Colorado man who says he was sexually abused when he was around 7 years old by a teenager who later became a prominent Roman Catholic priest — one known for his work with at-risk kids — on Monday sued the Chicago-based religious order to which the priest belongs, seeking the release of all records related to allegations of abuse by any of its priests.
Eric Johnson's lawsuit names the Claretians Missionaries, a 165-year-old order that has around 3,000 priests and brothers in about 60 countries, as the defendant. The suit filed in Cook County Circuit Court says that Father Bruce Wellems was around 15 when the abuse occurred in the early 1970s. Johnson says the abuse occurred over about a year.
Several phone messages left for Wellems on a private phone and at the Claretians headquarters were not returned Monday. He has previously acknowledged inappropriately touching of a minor when he himself was under 18, but he has also said he never again abused a child, including never as an adult and never as a priest. Messages seeking comment from the Claretians also weren't returned.
Speaking at a news conference at his lawyer's Chicago office, Johnson said he decided to sue because the Claretians did not follow through on pledges the order made to Johnson earlier to closely monitor Wellems and to not allow him access to children unless another adult was present.
"My hope was that they would ... protect the children," he said. "And I don't believe they have done their duties to do that."
Johnson said he became alarmed in the mid-1990s when he heard reports about Wellems' work with various children's groups, and so he wrote letters to the Claretians and the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1995 detailing his allegations against Wellems. That's when he received the assurances, he said.
Johnson's lawyer, Marc Pearlman, said it's particularly difficult to obtain information about priests from religious orders because of a degree of independence they maintain from their local archdiocese.
"Religious orders continue to fly under the radar" when it comes to allegations of abuse, he said.
Priests in such orders are largely subject to the control of their orders, but it is the archdiocese that grants or withdraws permission for a priest to say mass and perform other priestly functions.
In response to an email Monday, a spokeswoman for the Chicago archdiocese issued a statement saying, "Wellems is a Claretian religious order priest who has not had an assignment in the Archdiocese since 2012 and has not been granted faculties to minister here. All inquiries regarding Fr. Wellems should be directed to the Claretians."
Wellems, ordained in 1986, worked as a priest in Chicago for most of his career, much of the time at Holy Cross-Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in a poor, Hispanic neighborhood.
In 2012, he was sent to the San Gabriel Mission in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, but was forced to leave after archdiocese officials there said they learned of the allegations he abused someone when he was young. They said they weren't told of those accusations even though they had arisen in the mid-1990s.
Wellems then returned to Chicago and worked again at the Holy Cross-Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. But the archdiocese confirmed in May amid questions about Wellems that he had been removed. Monday's lawsuit says neither the Claretians nor the archdiocese has said if the action was taken based on additional allegations of misconduct
Johnson's overriding interest, said Pearlman, is to see the release of all the available information on Wellems and allegations against any other Claretian priests.
"If he receives transparency," he said, "I feel confident this lawsuit will go away."