Lawyers Say Abuse Case Could Crack Joliet Diocese

By James Fuller
Chicago Daily Herald [Joliet IL]
July 30, 2005

The Diocese of Joliet is urging a DuPage County judge to seal the personnel file of a former Catholic priest accused of sexual abuse, setting up a legal battle to force church officials to name both victims and other priests with similar charges.

A Glen Ellyn man in his late 40s identified only as "John Doe" is embroiled in a civil lawsuit against Edward Stefanich. Doe accuses the defrocked priest of repeatedly sexually abusing him between 1969 and 1970. Doe was a 12-year-old student at Christ the King Elementary School in Lombard at the time. Stefanich, now in his late 60s, served six months in jail on a separate aggravated criminal sexual assault charge in 1987, committed while he was a priest.

Doe's attorney, Jeff Anderson, said the diocese has been bulletproof until his client's case He said church officials shook off at least half a dozen similar accusations in the last decade because the alleged abuse traced back beyond the statute of limitations for such charges.

"The Diocese of Joliet has yet to be held legally accountable, and this is the first case where any survivor may get a chance to make his sordid story known," Anderson said. "The bishop and his officials have hid behind statute. Now the wall of deception and deceit has begun to crack."

,span class="News">Now Anderson wants that perceived wall to crumble.

Anderson believes Stefanich's personnel file, paired with a deposition of Bishop Joseph Imesch, would bring to light not only Stefanich's actions, but possibly evidence of a cover up and the names of other priests accused of abuse.

The diocese wants DuPage County Judge Stephen Culliton to seal the file, shielding both it and Imesch's deposition from public view. The order is not meant to hide any abuse, just protect the identity of people abused, said John Cullen, a spokesman for the diocese.

"We've made a great effort to be open about everything involving child sexual abuse because we're ashamed of what's happened," he said. "We've come forward and admitted what we've done wrong."

The diocese serves more than 600,000 Catholics across seven counties, including DuPage and Will. A report issued by the diocese last year concluded that 27 of its priests had 113 credible allegations of sexual misconduct with a child made against them. All 27 were no longer in the ministry as of the report date, with 14 of them gone because they were placed on administrative leave.

Cullen said the request for a protective order in the Stefanich case is simply the "norm in child sexual abuse cases."

David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the norm for the Diocese of Joliet is to protect secrets while using a victim's privacy as an excuse.

"This protection order absolutely contradicts all of Bishop Imesch's promises from 2002 until now," he said. "Their real goal here is protection of the church hierarchy."

A possible compromise would be to allow the file to become public with the names of victims blotted out. That's acceptable to Anderson as long as the names of any priests are not blotted out.

Cullen, contacted at home Saturday, said he didn't know if the diocese would be willing to accept that compromise.

The judge is expected to rule on the protective order Aug. 8.

Clohessy's group will pass out fliers to Catholics leaving mass outside of the Cathedral of St. Raymond in Joliet today. The fliers will urge parishioners to ask Imesch to release all documents regarding priest abuse allegations.