Bishop Defiant in Sex Cases
Deposition Shows Joliet Leader's Defense of Moving Accused Priest
By David Heinzmann and Crystal Yednak
February 3, 2006
During a deposition in August, Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch said a priest skinny-dipping and playing poker in the nude with young boys was "inappropriate," but because Imesch did not consider it to be sexual abuse, he moved the priest to another parish, according to court documents unsealed Thursday.
Imesch's reasoning for relocating Rev. Larry Gibbs from a Lombard parish where families accused him of sexually abusing boys to a Lockport parish where he was accused again was recorded in a deposition that the Tribune and the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault sought to have unsealed over the bishop's objections.
The deposition provides new details of Imesch's handling of priest sex abuse allegations during his 26 years as bishop.
At times angry and defiant during the lengthy deposition, Imesch, 74, at several points defended accused clerics, saying they were good priests who exercised poor judgment and were victims of smear campaigns and reckless media coverage.
After a testy exchange when attorney Jeffrey Anderson asked whether Imesch considered the 1980 Lombard allegations against Gibbs credible, the bishop replied: "Well, I think what happened happened. It was not considered a crime or a criminal activity so there was no reason for me not to transfer him," according to the transcript.
Imesch was deposed Aug. 5 by lawyers for a man who has alleged that Rev. Edward Stefanich sexually abused him in the 1960s at the same Lombard parish where Gibbs was accused of abusing boys in the 1980s.
According to the transcript, Imesch said he never considered reporting to police the alleged sexual relationship in the mid-1980s between Stefanich and a 14-year-old girl.
James Byrne, the bishop's attorney, criticized DuPage County Judge Stephen Culliton's decision to unseal the 268-page deposition.
"Ninety-nine percent of the five-hour deposition were questions by the [plaintiff's attorney]. If this is released, it will result in trial by media and my client won't be able to put anything into perspective," Byrne said in court, adding that the deposition included information about correspondence from church members.
"This could have a chilling effect on those who want to write the bishop. This is being done for embarrassment," he said.
The diocese released a written statement later Thursday further lamenting the judge's decision.
"It puts the diocese in an extreme disadvantage because the diocese is unable to put forth any effective response at this time," the statement said. "The diocese believes that lifting the order also violates the privacy of many other individuals except the alleged victims."
Culliton said in court that depositions are typically made public and he saw no reason to withhold the document, which was placed under protective order in August to shield the identities of alleged victims.
Lawyers for the man suing the diocese, identified only as "John Doe 85," said full disclosure of records is warranted because the church may be allowing sexually abusive priests to remain in ministry.
Attorney Marc Pearlman pointed to the accusations in recent days against Rev. Daniel McCormack in Chicago. Parishioners at St. Agatha are upset that for months they were unaware he was being investigated.
"John Doe 85 came forward to protect children against further abuse," Pearlman said. "With secrecy comes harm to children. Diocese wants to keep secrets."
Outside the courthouse in Wheaton Thursday, advocates for victims of priest sexual abuse lambasted the church's efforts to keep the transcript secret.
"The bishops promised us openness in 2002, and in 2006 we are still waiting," said Barbara Dorris, a member the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, referring to a meeting in Dallas where U.S. bishops adopted a national child sex-abuse policy. "We have learned today there is no openness. If he has nothing to hide, there is no reason for secrecy."
In the deposition, Imesch repeatedly says he did not report allegations of abuse to authorities because he had questions about the credibility of the claims.
Before Christmas in 1985, a deacon reported to diocesan officials that Stefanich at St. Scholastica parish in Woodridge might be having an improper relationship with a 14-year-old girl, according to the deposition. Imesch said he did not have the evidence to refer the matter to police.
"I would not do that. There is no verification. There is no hard evidence that this was happening. And I'm not going to go say, `Hey, police, go check on my priest,'" Imesch said in the deposition.
Anderson said reporting the incidents to police in 1985 might have prevented the girl from further sexual abuse.
Imesch replied: "I'm not going to go to the police and say, `I've got a suspicion that one of my priests is dating a young girl.' I'm not going to do that."
The deacon went to police with the information. Stefanich pleaded guilty in August 1987 to criminal sexual abuse and was sentenced to 6 months in jail.
As part of his guilty plea, Stefanich resigned from the priesthood.
"Could I have done something more? Probably," Imesch said in the deposition. "We did what we thought was right at the time. And I'll live with that."
Along with new details in the McCormack case in the Chicago archdiocese, lawyers for two men filed lawsuits in Will County Thursday against the Joliet diocese and a former priest, Michael Gibbney, alleging that he abused boys at an Elmhurst parish in the 1970s.
ON REV. EDWARD STEFANICH
Stefanich pleaded guilty to abusing a 14-year-old girl in 1987.
JEFFREY ANDERSON, ATTORNEY
FOR AN ACCUSER: If you had reported this to the police in 1985 to investigate the suspicion ... this girl wouldn't have been raped?
BISHOP JOSEPH IMESCH: I'm not going to go to the police and say I've got a suspicion that one of my priests is dating a young girl. I'm not going to do that.
ANDERSON: She was a 14-year-old girl.
IMESCH: We didn't know that at the time.
ANDERSON: You didn't ask.
IMESCH: We didn't know who to ask.
ON REV. LARRY GIBBS
Gibbs was accused of abusing boys in the 1980s.
ANDERSON: And what did he tell you?
IMESCH: That he went skinny dipping with these kids and they played some games while they were nude.
ANDERSON: What did he tell you about the games that they played and what he did in connection?
IMESCH: He never told me.
ANDERSON: You didn't ask? He told you they played games after skinny dipping, right?
IMESCH: Right, right.
ANDERSON: And that they were nude.
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