RANTOUL – The Rev. Vien Van Do, a Catholic priest rejected as the pastor for a Rantoul church, remains a pastor of three parishes north of Peoria.
Earlier this summer, the St. Malachy Catholic Church congregation balked at accepting Do and instead now has the Rev. Steven Bird as pastor. Opposition was centered around a 1999 lawsuit in which a Monticello couple claimed Do, a native of Vietnam, had molested the woman, a former church secretary.
The suit against Do and the Peoria Diocese was settled in Peoria County Circuit Court in 2002. Details of the settlement were not made public.
Concerning priest appointments to St. Malachy, "It's the first one they've ever changed," said Phillip Warner, one of two church trustees. Warner has been a member of the church since 1943.
In May, Bishop Daniel Jenky, head of the Peoria Diocese, appointed Do to the Rantoul parish as of June 11. The News-Gazette reported June 11 that Do would be the new Rantoul priest.
The change, appointing Bird as of June 16, was not made public until an announcement published in The Catholic Post in late July.
Warner held parish meetings about the Do appointment in late May and early June, and area Catholics sent letters to the bishop in Peoria about their concerns.
"There was enough local people that had issues about him (Do)," Warner said. "People in Thomasboro and Ludlow, where he had been before, also had issues."
Do served parishes in Thomasboro and Ludlow from 1994 until his 1996 move to Monticello and Bement.
Contacted by telephone in Wyoming, Ill., Do, 59, said he had "no comment."
Do has served congregations at St. Dominic's, Wyoming; St. Patrick's, Camp Grove; and St. John's, Bradford, since 2006 and remains with those parishes.
In the lawsuit, the Monticello couple, whose names were withheld, claimed that "the inappropriate sexual contact progressed from repetitive hugging to unsolicited and unwanted kissing, touching and fondling of Jane Doe's breasts" at St. Philomena's, in 1997 and 1998. Do was the pastor at the Monticello church, plus St. Michael's in Bement at the time.
The suit also said a diocese official threatened the secretary's husband with the loss of his title as a deacon if he spoke publicly about the case.
At the time, the Most Rev. John J. Myers – now archbishop of Newark, N.J. – was bishop of Peoria.
A Springfield lawyer for the couple did not return repeated calls for comment.
The diocese denied the allegations, according to Associated Press articles about the lawsuit, and put Do on a temporary leave of absence in 1998.
Do underwent counseling and was "judged fit to return to work," according to diocese comments to the AP at the time.
The current directory of the diocese said Do took another leave of absence, in 1999. In between his leaves, Do served as an assistant at St. Anthony's in Streator.
After his second leave of absence, Do worked in Peoria and Moline before moving to Wyoming.
The Peoria Diocese did not answer detailed questions about the case but issued the following statement from Monsignor Paul Showalter, vicar general of the diocese, this week:
"Father Vien Van Do is a priest in good standing. The changes to his assignment to St. Malachy Church in Rantoul were due to his desire to stay at his present assignment as well as routine personnel changes."
The St. Malachy trustee and an area monsignor have a different story about the change.
"When push came to shove, I got a hold of Monsignor (Albert) Hallin, vicar of Champaign (a group of 22 area churches) and he came up to talk to us," Warner said of a May meeting with the congregation.
In a telephone interview, Hallin described Do as "unfortunately, not familiar with American customs and kinds of distance required of people not married or related."
Hallin said the diocese settled the lawsuit and "impressed on him (Do) the fact that this (behavior) is not appropriate."
"When that (Do appointment) hit the (St. Malachy) community in Rantoul ... it didn't help that we (Catholics) have had more problems with clergy sexual abuse," Hallin said.
Hallin said he talked personally with the bishop.
"You don't tell the bishop what to do, but in most matters like this he asks, 'What do you think?' " Hallin said. "I said, 'It won't work (to appoint Do); you need to do something different.'"
"Then the bishop asked Father Bird and I think it's a marriage made in heaven," Hallin said. "He has enough personality, tact and quiet demeanor."
Bird, 45, was ordained in 2000. He has served parishes in Lincoln, Atlanta, Mason City, Moline, Mendota and Kewanee before taking a leave of absence. During the leave, "I was with the Dominicans in Cincinnati, Ohio," he said.