Rev. William McFarlane returned to ministry; parishioners want him reinstated as pastor
December 6, 2019

Photos by Carmen Valentino
Nativity of Our Lord parishioners signed petitions asking Cardinal Blasé Cupich to reinstate Rev. William McFarlane as their pastor. Over the course of six days, 495 signatures were recorded.

By Nathan Worcester

The Rev. William McFarlane, a priest at Nativity of Our Lord and St. Gabriel Parish, has returned to the parish after church officials asked him to step aside in July 2019 when the Archdiocese of Chicago received an allegation of sexual abuse dating to 1997. The allegation concerned events that predate his entry into the seminary and his 2005 ordination. Fr. McFarlane has not subsequently resumed his pastoral duties at Nativity.

“Per our protocol, the allegation was reported to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the Cook County State’s Attorney,” wrote Anne Maselli, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese. “DCFS determined the allegation to be unfounded. We have not received further communication from the Cook County State’s Attorney following our report of the allegation.

“The Independent Review Board [IRB] of the Archdiocese of Chicago investigated the matter and determined that there was insufficient reason to suspect that Father McFarlane had committed sexual abuse of a minor and recommended that he be returned to ministry,” Maselli continued. “Cardinal [Blase] Cupich accepted the IRB’s determination and recommendation.

“The Archdiocese is working with Fr. McFarlane to determine his next assignment,” Maselli added.

“While we cannot comment on a specific allegation, we review each matter on a case by case basis and make a determination of any appropriate next steps based on the evidence and the law,” wrote the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO) in an email.

SAO neither confirmed nor denied that police investigated the allegation from 1997, writing, “This is a question for law enforcement.” SAO did not clarify which law enforcement agency would be responsible for carrying out such an investigation. Maselli did not indicate that the Archdiocese contacted law enforcement.

When asked which specific law enforcement agency would be responsible for investigating the claims, the SAO responded, “We do not have the information you are requesting.” The Chicago Police Department has no records of an arrest or of charges being filed.

Regarding DCFS’s findings, Maselli wrote, “This is the direct language from the letter DCFS provided us regarding Fr. McFarlane: ‘After a thorough investigation, DCFS has determined the report to be “unfounded.” This means that credible evidence of child abuse or neglect was not found during this investigation.’”

Rev. McFarlane received a warm welcome at Nativity of Our Lord after presiding at his first Mass after being returned to active ministry.

DCFS spokesperson Jason Strokosch confirmed the agency made an “unfounded” determination regarding abuse or neglect of any children who are still minors by Fr. McFarlane. He also clarified what “unfounded” means for DCFS in this context, stating DCFS made no claims regarding the 1997 report’s validity.

“When we do an investigation at DCFS, our charge is the safety of current children,” said Strokosch. “So, when someone brings an allegation of abuse and neglect of a child that is older, and the child is no longer still a minor, we still investigate, but the previous incident that’s alleged is in and of itself not something we can indicate for. Whether the original incident happened or not is not something within the scope of what we can investigate.”

Parishioners’ petition

On Nov. 10, Nativity’s 4 p.m. Mass, which took place in the adjoining Bridgeport Catholic Academy’s gymnasium, was full of families, including many young children. As they streamed out of the building onto the streets of Bridgeport, attendees passed Walter Gorman, who was collecting signatures on a petition to Cardinal Cupich requesting the archdiocese reinstall Fr. McFarlane as pastor at Nativity. Others were invited to sign the petition at other Masses at the church.

“A lot of people make accusations just to cause trouble,” said Gorman. “That’s the way things are happening today in this world. Too much baloney going on.”

“We liked [Fr. McFarlane] very much, and I feel like we all wanted him back,” said Lori Serpico as she left the service. “We knew he would be cleared, and he was. We’d love to have him back here. All of our hearts are open here for him, but we just don’t know.”

Irene O’Neill, who explained she has belonged to the Nativity community for a quarter century, noted officials have reinstated other Chicago priests to ministry after investigators determined sexual abuse allegations were unfounded. She cited the case of the Rev. Gary Graf, who won reinstatement at San José Luis Sánchez del Río this past April.

“I felt confident, knowing Fr. McFarlane, that probably the same thing would happen to him,” said O’Neill. “I was happy they took him out of ministry—I’m glad the church has those policies in place.

“If we’re notifying civil authorities, that’s a good thing,” added O’Neill.

According to parishioner Perry Buckley, the petition to keep Fr. McFarlane at Nativity received 495 signatures over only six days—a total representing well over half the parish’s members. Organizers brought the petition to the Archdiocese’s office on Nov. 15.

“Since he’s been a pastor with us, he’s been nothing but a stellar, wonderful pastor,” said Buckley. “We’re basically judging him on what we’ve seen with our eyes.

“You would think that if these charges had any substance, then they would have done something,” Buckley continued. He added that, when Fr. McFarlane unexpectedly said Mass on a recent Sunday, parishioners responded with a standing ovation.

“He’s someone who’s really loved,” said Buckley. “The logical thing to do is keep him here where we love him and don’t send him someplace where people may not be so welcoming.”

Fr. McFarlane did not respond to requests for comment.

To contact Nativity of Our Lord parish, call (773) 927-6263.