James Serritella, legal adviser to archdiocese for 50 years, dies

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2021

James A. Serritella. (Photo by Steve Leonard)

James A. Serritella, an attorney who served as principal outside counsel and legal adviser to the Archdiocese of Chicago for nearly 50 years, died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital April 23 from complications of heart disease. He was 78.

Mr. Serritella is credited with helping develop the Archdiocese of Chicago’s 1992 policies for preventing and responding to clerical sexual abuse, policies that later became the basis for 2002 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, but he was also instrumental in the development of civil law and public policy relating to religious organizations.

“It is with great sadness that I write of the death of James A. Serritella, who served the archdiocese and the church for 50 years as legal counsel,” Cardinal Cupich wrote in a statement on Mr. Serritella’s death. “Jim worked with four cardinals over the years, helping navigate the archdiocese through many changes and challenges. Working with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, he was an architect of our pioneering 1992 policies for dealing with clergy sexual abuse of children. These became the basis of the policies adopted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops 10 years later. Jim’s keen focus on compassionate care of survivors and their families was a cornerstone of the archdiocese’s response to this crisis. His hand can be seen in the structure of our Office for the Protection of Children and Youth and its healing and preventive activities.”

Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington, D.C., was an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago from 1983 to 1993, when those policies were being developed, and was bishop of the Diocese of Belleville and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2001 to 2004, when the charter was developed.

“I was fortunate enough to have encountered Jim Serritella at the beginning of my episcopal service where he witnessed the delicate and needed combination of professional competence and religious empathy,” Cardinal Gregory said. “He helped me to understand that the church was called to compassion and to justice. These have remained lessons that I have tried to emulate throughout the years. I ask that the Lord now reward Jim for his devotion to our church and to all her people.”

Over his extensive career, Mr. Serritella saw the Archdiocese of Chicago through countless critical events including the clergy sex abuse crisis and the many transitions and restructurings of the archdiocese, including the deaths of three cardinals.

He represented the archdiocese in NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, the 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case that held religious schools are not subject to the National Labor Relations Act, and he headed the commission that developed legislation around end-of-life care in Illinois.

He also helped create the New York-based Center for Migration Studies and the DePaul University Center for Church/State Studies, said James Geoly, general counsel for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Geoly first worked with Mr. Serritella at Mayer Brown in 1986, when he was an associate tapped to help Mr. Serritella on a project. Geoly eventually worked on Mr. Serritella’s team, handling religious and non-profit clients, and moved with him to Burke, Warren, MacKay and Serritella in 1997.

Richard Burke, founding partner of the firm, said Mr. Serritella brought with him an extensive practice representing religious and not-for-profit institutions, opening a new area of emphasis for the firm and benefiting from the firm’s existing expertise in areas such as tax law and real estate.

“He brought with him his very good legal training with his very, very deep knowledge of the institutional church,” Burke said. “He had a talent not only in law but also in the structural church and how the church responded to challenges in the civil area and the criminal area as well.”

Some of that knowledge came from Serritella’s background, growing up in the Italian neighborhood around Taylor Street and entering a Scalabrinian seminary at age 13, according to his only son, Anthony Serritella, a doctor at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Mr. Serritella left the seminary after studying in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University, coming to the realization that he wanted to have an effect on public policy in the world, his son said, even though that meant going back to school for a second bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree. He studied law at the University of Chicago, where one of his teachers was future Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who became a lifelong friend.

Anthony Serritella said his father worked to instill in him the understanding that everything starts with following a good moral compass.

“My father did everything he could to help me, to be both a moral guide as well as a father figure and a friend,” Serritella said. “His attitude was to try to take on the teachings of Jesus Christ and don’t be consumed by bad influences. Be consumed by doing the right thing. He always wanted to do the right thing.”

Serritella said he and his father were always close, and they became closer after the death of his mother, Ruby, in 2009. Mr. Serritella and his wife met on a blind date in 1980, Anthony Serritella said.

“I did not realize the extent of how positive of a marriage they had,” said Serritella, whose own wedding was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is now scheduled for later this year. “They were the model of what an idyllic marriage could be.”

Geoly said Mr. Serritella was also an attentive mentor to the young lawyers he helped, looking for opportunities for professional development and to introduce them to clients.

He was formal in his bearing, especially early in his career — “When Mayer Brown introduced casual Fridays, he was not happy,” Geoly said — but became less so in recent years.

Geoly said Serritella’s influence went further than just the law.

“Jim is somebody I would characterize as a convener,” he said. “He used to enjoy convening people for a common purpose. He would convene the right people from different perspectives who could synthesize an outcome that none of them would have reached if they thought of it on their own.”

What never wavered was his commitment to doing the right thing, Geoly said. After looking back at the first clerical sex abuse case Mr. Serritella handled for the archdiocese in the 1980s, “Jim had 98 percent of what became the modern state-of-the-art in place,” Geoly said.

That included removing the priest from ministry, informing law enforcement and reaching out to victims pastorally, because, as Mr. Serritella said, “The church acts best when it acts as church.”

“None of that stuff had been in place before,” Geoly said. “He had no one to consult with in terms of how to properly respond. In that world, I wouldn’t have done anything different even knowing what I know now.”

John O’Malley, former director of legal services and special counsel for misconduct issues for the Archdiocese of Chicago, worked with Mr. Serritella for nearly 30 years.

“Jim Serritella was a very, very fine lawyer,” O’Malley said. “His legal advice was informed and thoughtful and he always considered what was best for the archdiocese as a church institution.”

The first project O’Malley worked on with Mr. Serritella in 1992 was drafting the polices for responding to clerical sexual abuse of minors.

“Cardinal Bernardin’s special commission had recommended policies focused on dealing with a priest’s misconduct — that was their assignment,” O’Malley said. “However, Jim realized any such program must also include outreach to victims and he recommended that we create an ‘assistance ministry’ to respond in a pastoral way to those affected by abuse. We made it the first substantive section of the new program and it was the first of its kind, 10 years before the national bishops’ charter and norms in 2002. It was Jim’s idea and it embodied, I think, the extraordinary value of his service to the church.”

His experience in drafting the policies informed Mr. Serritella’s advice to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin when he was falsely accused of sexual abuse, and it led to the polices adopted in the 1990s.

“Between 1986 and 1992, Jim was a constant force towards reform of the system to what it became in 1992,” Geoly said. “Those were years in which Jim had to use all of his persuasive powers. It was a paradigm shift. Credit the men who wear the collars for being open to it.”

Mr. Serritella was a fierce advocate for full disclosure and transparency for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Notably, in 2006, the archdiocese published a list of all clergy with substantiated allegations of child sexual abuse against them and in 2014 the archdiocese voluntarily released nearly 20,000 pages of documents related to these priests.

Anthony Serritella said his father hoped to see the archdiocese through the crisis.

“He said, if they could keep doing the right thing, keep being transparent, it might take a long time, but the church will come through it,” Serritella said.

Over the course of his career, Mr. Serritella received many honorary degrees and professional and ecclesial honors, including a 2012 knighthood in the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great.

“My father was the best man I have known in my entire life, and I measure every move I make based on how my father would view that move,” Anthony Serritella said. “I think about how everyone has called him a good, fair and just man, and I’m trying to be a man like he was.”

Serritella is survived by his son and his sister, Camille Vena.



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