Unknown tale: Father George Clements’s role in Cook County court reform

Father George Clements, who died last week, did many great things in his life. But Rob Warden reveals one about which nobody knew.

As his obituaries noted, Father George H. Clements, who died last week at age 87, was a civil rights icon.

But the obituaries didn’t mention that the Chicago priest also was the hero of a judicial scandal that erupted a little more than half a century ago, when he was assistant pastor of St. Dorothy’s Catholic Church at 450 E. 78th St.

The scandal resulted in significant court reform.

It wasn’t the fault of the obituary writers that Father Clements wasn’t credited for his role in exposing the scandal—since I’m probably the only person alive who knows about it.

I tell the story here—for the first time.

It began at 6:50 a.m. on May 2, 1967, when three armed men invaded the St. Dorothy’s rectory, terrorized two nuns, tied up two priests after forcing them to open the parish safe, locked a 13-year-old altar boy in a closet, and made off with $1,700.

One of the nuns summoned police, who within minutes arrested two suspects—Louis Carr, 31, and Levi Washington, 34—and recovered all but $200 of the stolen cash.

Carr and Washington, alas, were back on the street within hours—released on no-cash signature bonds approved by Associate Judge Louis W. Kizas, of the Cook County Circuit Court.

Father Clements, who wasn’t among the priests tied up by the robbers, was outraged. Because I had covered the robbery for the Chicago Daily News, he called me, requesting anonymity because his superiors didn’t want to call attention to the situation.

I verified that the men indeed had been released on bonds signed by Judge Kizas and wrote a story—not mentioning Father Clements.

The story quickly spread to other news media, including the Chicago Defender. Kizas had refused to comment to me, but unabashedly told the Defender that he had approved the bonds as a favor for “a close personal friend”—the suspect’s lawyer.

Kizas added that he was confident that his lawyer pal could guarantee the defendants’ appearance in court—but the men absconded.

Chicago Tribune reporters John Oswald and Ron Koziol seized the initiative—reporting that Kizas had signed roughly 1,000 no-cash bonds over 17 months preceding the St. Dorothy’s robbery.

Only eight days after the crime, in the furry of publicity, Chief Circuit Court Judge John S. Boyle suspended Kizas from the bench, telling the Tribune: “In my opinion, Judge Kizas has acted improperly in setting an inordinate number of bonds without regard to facts and circumstances.”

Four months later, Kizas resigned, and a month after that was indicted along with three lawyers and four bond-arrangers on 71 counts of bribery, conspiracy, and official misconduct.

At Kizas’s trial in August 1969, testimony indicated that, as the Tribune had reported, he had signed up to 1,000 blank bond slips—charging lawyers $50 for each. His corrupt take, over the 17 months surveyed by the Tribune, would have been on the order of $50,000—when associate judges’ salaries were $26,500 a year.

Kizas was not the only judge who had signed off on inordinate numbers of such bonds, but the he was the only one convicted.

Judge Frank Wilson, who soon would be exposed as on the take himself, let Kizas off with a $15,000 fine.

Meanwhile, the St. Dorothy’s robbers—or rather the two who were known, Carr and Washington—were brought to justice for the robbery after they were arrested for a $37,000 bank robbery in Jackson, Mich.

The result of what Father Clements had anonymously exposed was the establishment of a fulltime Cook County bond court—which eliminated the corruption-prone practice of judges setting bonds without hearings on the record.

It was a significant reform, for which Father Clements richly deserves credit.

I regret that I didn’t tell this story during his lifetime, but I’m happy to do so now.

Rob Warden is co-founder of Injustice Watch.

Editor’s Note: At the time of his death, Father Clements was under investigation by the Archdiocese of Chicago for an allegation of child sexual abuse from 1974. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services classified the allegation as “unfounded.”