The Rev. John Baptist Ormechea lives in one of the most picturesque parts of Rome in a centuries-old monastery buffered by gardens and overlooking the ancient Colosseum.
A member of a Catholic religious order the Passionists, Ormechea was moved into the Rome complex in 2003 not for its contemplative setting but, according to the order’s province that includes Chicago, “because all the residences in the province had youth programs or were in a parish setting.”
From the late 1970s to the late 1980s, Ormechea served at Immaculate Conception Parish on the Far Northwest Side.
Then, in the early 2000s, several men came forward, saying that, as boys at Immaculate Conception, they were sexually abused there by Ormechea.
The accusations were deemed by church authorities to be credible, which meant Ormechea had to be away from children. He also could have faced criminal charges if the statute of limitations for filing such charges hadn’t expired, the Chicago Sun-Times found.
Such misconduct is exactly the kind of information that, in the wake of yet another national scandal over abusive priests, Cardinal Blase Cupich in Chicago and others in the American Catholic church hierarchy have said the public has a right to know.
Cupich maintains a public list, posted online, of abusive diocesan priests — clerics who worked under his authority or that of his predecessors overseeing the Archdiocese of Chicago.
But you won’t find Ormechea on Cupich’s list. That’s because it doesn’t include abusive clerics who, like Ormechea, belong to the Passionists or any of the other semi-autonomous religious orders, whose operations extend far beyond the boundaries of a single diocese.
You could find out about the allegations against Ormechea that his own order deemed to be credible if the Passionists maintained a similar public list of its clerics.
Many other orders do, encouraged to do so by Cupich, who for years has asked Catholic religious orders that operate within his jurisdiction of Cook and Lake counties to come clean about abuse allegations against their clerics. Such publicly accessible lists of abusers and their assignments would help fill in the gaps that his own list leaves.
But the Passionists haven’t done that.
Neither Cupich nor his top aides would comment. A Cupich spokeswoman previously has said he has left it to the orders to make public any information about their problem priests because they have the best information about them.
Cupich has been collecting detailed information, though, on abusive order priests who have ever worked in the geographic territory that he oversees for Pope Francis or who were found to have abused anyone here, the Sun-Times reported in February. But the cardinal has declined to make that information public even though he posts the same type of information about predator priests who worked under his authority.
Unlike Cupich, many other dioceses release the names and the assignment histories of any priest, regardless of whether they are affiliated with a religious order, who served within their boundaries at any point and faced credible allegations of abuse.
For example, the Archdiocese of Louisville has Ormechea on its list of problem priests even though he’s an order priest. He was serving there at the time the Chicago accusations were made in the early 2000s and was removed from public ministry after the claims were deemed credible.
In 2016, a new child sex abuse allegation was leveled against Ormechea dating to an earlier stint in the Kentucky diocese, in the 1960s, according to church officials.
Victims of priest sex abuse and church reform advocates say these lists are important because they help provide a fuller picture of the scope of child sex abuse within the Catholic church, which has seen waves of scandal and cover-ups since the 1980s and hundreds of millions of dollars in payouts to victims.
They say such lists also can help validate and heal those who have been sexually assaulted by priests, spur more victims to come forward, put the public on alert about the presence of predators and allow the church to fulfill its stated mission of being transparent about its handling of abusive priests.
Timothy Nockels, who says he was molested as a boy by Ormechea when the priest was stationed at Immaculate Conception, sees it as a slap in the face that Ormechea hasn’t faced a more formal acknowledgement by the church regarding the claims church officials found credible that he was a serial child molester.
The Passionists continue to list Ormechea as a priest in staff directories, referring to him by the priestly designation “Father” and noting that he recently has been working in the order’s archives department at the Roman monastery.
“I think he’s a monster pedophile, and essentially he’s still in the business” that allowed him to operate, says Nockels, now 55 and living in Vernon Hills. “When I heard he was in Rome and that he still puts that word ‘Father’ in front of his name, it makes me angry.”
Ormechea, 83, didn’t respond to calls or emails seeking comment. A man answering the phone at his monastery said, “He’s not available,” and hung up on a reporter.
The Rev. Joseph Moons, leader of the Passionists’ Park Ridge-based province that includes Chicago, says Ormechea is in Rome on a “safety plan.” He says that means the priest must abide by restrictions if he wants to stay a part of the order. According to Moons, Ormechea isn’t allowed to take part in any public ministry and is subject to monitoring.
He says the priest was moved to Rome because the province’s other residences “had youth programs or were in a parish setting.”
Ormechea “is not able to move around freely, and his name is already public,” Moons says — apparently referring to the priest’s having been named in abuse lawsuits.
Ormechea left Immaculate Conception in 1988. By 2002, he was working at a parish in Louisville, Kentucky.
That year, “four men told Chicago investigators” the priest “had kissed and fondled them when they were teenagers in the late 1970s and early 1980s” at the Norwood Park parish, according to Moons.
“Chicago prosecutors determined that a legal deadline to charge John Ormechea in the alleged abuse of four minors had passed,” Moons says.
The Passionists “deemed the four men’s allegations as credible, and their civil lawsuits we settled,” Moons says. “An additional allegation was received in 2016 . . . dating back to 1963-1966. There have been no other allegations reported.”
The Chicago archdiocese — which has little direct authority over religious orders operating within its boundaries but has the power to grant or deny their clerics rights to minister here — also was sued over Ormechea and settled the case for an undisclosed amount.
Some of the lawsuits accused the archdiocese and the Passionists of having been aware of troubling behavior by Ormechea while he was at Immaculate Conception but doing little or nothing — including failing to tell parishioners of the allegations.
Moons won’t talk about that.
Nor will he say how many members of his order who have served in the Chicago area have faced allegations of sexual abuse.
Until it was redeveloped into a senior-living complex, the order maintained a towering, red-brick monastery on Harlem Avenue adjacent to Immaculate Conception and just north of the Kennedy Expressway that once housed an out-of-state cleric accused of sex abuse, according to Sun-Times interviews, until parishioners found out and objected.
Moons says his order takes sexual abuse claims seriously.
And he notes that “there are no lawsuits pending against any Passionists of this province. More importantly, no Passionist with an established allegation of abuse is in public ministry. Additionally, no Passionist with an established allegation of abuse is living in a community serving minors.”
Moons says that, although it hasn’t heeded Cupich’s call for orders to be transparent about their clerics found to have abused, the province is “considering releasing a list of names of Passionists who have established allegations of sexual abuse of minors.”
Nockels, who has two teenage boys, comes from a firefighting family. Chicago fire Capt. Daniel Nockels, an uncle, died in 1985 with two colleagues battling a fire in Logan Square set by an arsonist. His late father was a Chicago Fire Department battalion chief at O’Hare Airport. His grandfather also had been a fire chief there.
Nockels says Ormechea abused him for several years while he was living in Edison Park and attending Immaculate Conception for grammar school and beyond. Ormechea was seen as a family friend, Nockels says, was at the house frequently for dinner and officiated at a family wedding.
Nockels says he fell into self-destructive behavior for a time but that he buried his painful memories and “didn’t really do anything until I started reading about those guys in Boston.”
In 2002, the Boston Globe published a series of stories about abuse there and cover-ups by the church and law enforcement that shook the American Catholic church and resulted in an outcry that saw Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law transferred to Rome.
“When I started reading about them, I was, like, ‘I’m one of them,’ ” Nockels says of the Boston victims.
He subsequently sued and settled with Ormechea’s order and the Chicago archdiocese.
“He stole my childhood right out from under my family’s nose,” Nockels says. “Any funds given to me, I’d pay that 10 times to have a normal childhood.”
Nockels’ sister Joan Nockels Wilson traveled to Rome nearly a decade ago to confront Ormechea. He had presided at the wedding of Wilson and her first husband. She says she became consumed by what she saw as the priest’s treachery and with how to reconcile her faith with what happened to her brother.
Wilson, a former prosecutor and a lawyer in Alaska, says Ormechea agreed to speak with her and, though not admitting molesting her brother, told her words to the effect of: “I am sorry for what I did to you and your family. I spilled the milk and can’t put it back in a bottle.”
Wilson wrote a memoir about her family’s ordeal, titled “The Book of Timothy,” that’s slated to be published this fall.
The Passionists, like other religious orders, follow in the mold of a saint — for them, it’s St. Paul of the Cross — and a particular mission: reaching “out with compassion to the crucified of today,” keeping alive “the memory of Christ’s Passion through our commitment to community, prayer, ministries of the Word and service to those who suffer.”
In 2004, the order was among those named in a Dallas Morning News investigation that found that, in Rome, “in the heart of Catholicism, church leaders are giving refuge” to priests “who face allegations of sexual abuse in other countries.”
Ormechea’s order no longer staffs Immaculate Conception. Moons says his province left the parish in 2013 “due to our decline of available priests to serve as pastor.”