I-Team Exclusive: Secret Archive Contains Records of Alleged Sexual Abuse in Diocese of Joliet
March 19, 2013
[Father Burnett: Review Committee Allegations pdf]
[Joliet Diocese Files of Fr. Donald O'Connor pdf]
The I-Team has learned that a secret archive containing records on priests accused of sexual abuse was covered up for years in the Diocese of Joliet. Also included in the files was information on the suicides of victims who complained, but were ignored.
The archive contains hidden personnel files of priests who, according to the records, allegedly violated their oath of fidelity. Yet the files were concealed by bishops who broke their oath of honesty.
The files contain alleged incidents that spanned more than six decades.
Dave Rudofski is one of the faces of innocence lost in the Diocese of Joliet. In 1982, Rudofski was 8 years old and living in Mokena.
He was an altar boy at St. Mary's Parish, and says he was molested while giving his first confession to Father James Burnett.
Thirty years later, Rudofski sued the diocese. His legal settlement demanded that other confidential personnel files be unlocked by the diocese.
The files are now public, but only because of Rudofski's court settlement required them to be.
"There are over 91 separate places were these sexual predators served in the Diocese of Joliet. According to our experts, that is at least 75% of the parishes the Joliet Diocese had a sexual predator priest serving in," said Terry Johnson, Rudofski's attorney.
Victim complaints, memos and medical evaluations were stashed away by several bishops and other top leaders, Johnson says.
The Diocese of Joliet has expressed regret over the alleged incidents.
"We know mistakes were made in the past. We know errors of judgment were made in the past, what we need to do is learn from that," said James Dwyer, Diocese of Joliet spokesman.
However, according to the records and victims' attorneys, even after church officials found out that Burnett had allegedly abused three boys, it took several years to tell the public.
The Diocese of Joliet currently lists 34 priests with credible sex abuse allegations against them, made by more than 100 victims. Some say there are many more.
"According to our experts who reviewed this, there are probably somewhere between 600 to 1,000 victims who need help and have not come forward. Some of the victims of the priests from the Joliet Diocese have committed suicide so these are real issues," said Johnson.
All of the priests in the newly obtained files are out of ministry or have died, including the late associate pastor of Assumption Parish in Coal City, Father Donald O'Connor.
"One of the documents talks about a victim of Father O'Connor. At age 16, this boy asked him to meet him at a restaurant on Jefferson Street in Joliet and when confronted by the boy about his sexual attacks, Father O'Connor said that Bishop Blanchet would probably not believe that the abuse happened and that abusing young boys is 'better than shacking up with a woman,'" Johnson said.
According to the secret church record, Father O'Connor allegedly "took a liking to" another altar boy, who woke up in a hotel room with no clothes on after a museum outing.
According to the file, the boy suspects he was given medication, and awoke with shaving cream on his stomach in the design of a smiley face.
Under court order, attorneys have blacked out the names of victims and their relatives. But the Diocese of Joliet says that its "reticent" behavior in handing over the full contents of the files is due to ethics.
"Most if not all of the files of these priests have been handed over to civil authorities over the past 10 years. So, we're not afraid of the truth coming out. But a big reason why we're a little reticent to handing over everything in a personal file is because there are some ethics involved here. There's a lot of documentation from innocent people who have nothing to do, really, with the case," said Dwyer.
The files do contain some sordid details, in particular of retired Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch who, according to the records, knowingly moved several pedophile priests to other parishes or other states.
"Bishop Imesch said a lot of nice words but behind the scenes he was hiding documents and hiding priests," said Johnson.
The Joliet Diocese spokesman defends Imesch, saying county prosecutors determined the bishop did nothing to break the law ten years ago.
The files show that church officials even disagreed with each other on how to handle abuse cases. Once, in a dispute with Bishop Imesch, the Joliet Diocese second-in-command went to Cardinal Bernardin in Chicago for support.
"We can't change the suffering that's already happened, but we can provide support of services and we also want to assure that any offenders face the justice that they need to face," said Dwyer.
The Joliet Diocese says it plans to begin a new campaign urging abuse victims to come forward to provide support services and to make sure priest offenders are brought to justice.
And a new Joliet bishop, Daniel Conlon, is in charge of fighting these battles. He issued this statement on the sexual abuse settlement:
Still, these measures have done little to console victims like Rudofski.
"At every turn they tried to object, at every turn they tried to make getting this info to the public a non-starter, so I don't think they are doing a very good job," said Johnson.