Files Detail Decades of Abuse in Joliet Diocese
By Christy Gutowski
March 21, 2013
|David Rudofski said he was molested by a priest as an 8-year-old boy, left, in the early 1980s at St. Mary's Parish in Mokena. (Alex Garcia, Chicago Tribune / March 20, 2013) |
The Joliet Diocese readily admitted that David Rudofski was sexually abused during his first confession at St. Mary Catholic Church in Mokena. It offered him an in-person apology from the bishop and more than six times his annual salary in the hope of putting a quick, quiet end to yet another ugly incident involving a priest.
But Rudofski wanted more than money.
The south suburban electrician wanted the diocese to truly pay for its repeated and, oftentimes, willful mishandling of sexual abuse cases involving clergy — and he insisted on a currency far more precious to the church than money. He demanded that the diocese settle its debt by turning over the secret archives it maintained on abusive priests and making them available for public consumption.
"What was I supposed to do? Take the money and run?" Rudofski said. "How would that help anybody else? If people don't know how this was allowed to happen for decades, they can't prevent it from happening again."
The diocese, however, fought Rudofski's efforts for more than a year before agreeing to turn over the personnel files of 16 of the 34 priests with substantiated allegations against them. It also issued a news release adding his alleged abuser, the Rev. James Burnett, to its still-growing list of accused clergy.
The files, which Rudofski's attorney shared with the Tribune after redacting the names of other victims, contain more than 7,000 records detailing how the diocese purposefully shielded priests, misled parishioners and left children unprotected for more than a half-century. They also raise new questions about whether the church has been forthcoming about the number of local priests involved in the scandal and the percentage of clergy confronted with credible claims.
Though the Joliet Diocese's botched handling of pedophile priests has been well-documented in recent years, the records offer the most complete portrait of the ineptitude and indifference that greeted the allegations almost since the religious district's inception in 1948. The errors span more than six decades and involved three bishops, 91 places of worship and more than 100 victims.
Researchers and Roman Catholic Church officials have previously said that about 4 percent of priests nationally committed an act of sexual abuse against a minor between 1950 and 2002, with church officials claiming the rate of abusers within the priesthood is no different from that among other professions.
However, the files show that the Joliet Diocese — which includes parishes in DuPage, Ford, Grundy, Iroquois, Kankakee, Kendall and Will counties — had double or triple that percentage in the 1980s. In 1983, for example, more than 13 percent of priests serving in the diocese would later have credible abuse allegations leveled against them.
Reached at his home in New Lenox, retired Bishop Joseph Imesch, 81, said he didn't want to discuss details of the revelations in the documents.
"I'm not going to rehash all of this. I know what I did; I know what I should have done," he said, expressing frustration with the way news reports portrayed his conduct.
When a reporter informed him that a Tribune story was being prepared to report on the newly released documents, Imesch said, "Sure. Sex and the priests, let's blast it all over the place. Never let it go."
The records, some of which are stamped as being from the bishops' "secret archives," include letters, personnel files and administrative memos that the diocese has refused to release for years.
The documents show that two victims committed suicide and at least one other became a molester himself.
Victim advocates hailed the files' release for allowing the first comprehensive examination of the diocese's handling of sexual abuse cases. Though several Joliet cases were investigated by the media, the diocese did not face the kind of scrutiny found in Boston, Chicago or other major cities.
"In many ways, Joliet was far worse than others," said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It flew under the radar because of its size."
Most of the files reflect reports taken during the tenure of Imesch, who oversaw the diocese for 27 years and was in office when the churchwide scandal broke a decade ago. Imesch apologized in 2006 for any hurt caused by his words and decisions, after a deposition was unsealed in which he appeared unrepentant about sexual abuse allegations.
The records indicate that on at least two occasions, Chicago cardinals had intervened in cases and persuaded Imesch to respond accordingly.
The first instance occurred in 1993, when diocesan officials were dealing with the Rev. Larry Mullins, who eventually was accused by more than a dozen boys.
Documents show that Imesch and Auxiliary Bishop Roger Kaffer had a disagreement over whether Mullins should be returned to ministry after treatment for a sexual disorder. Kaffer argued that Mullins needed to be removed from ministry, according to the documents, but he said Imesch believed that the priest had been cured of any pedophilia and was ready to resume duties.
At the time, Kaffer was talking to alleged Mullins victims, one of whom told him that boys at the Cathedral of St. Raymond School in Joliet commonly referred to Mullins as "Gacy," a reference to John Wayne Gacy, who abducted, molested and murdered at least 33 teenage boys in the 1970s. The nickname was based on Mullins' alleged habit of sticking his hands down the trunks of basketball team members, according to the documents.
When the disagreement over Mullins reached an impasse, a frustrated Kaffer wrote that he took the extraordinary measure of going around Imesch and consulting the Chicago Archdiocese's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.
Kaffer wrote in a memo: "From the situation as I presented it, (Bernardin) agrees with me, and suggested I go to (Imesch) one more time to state my disagreement in conscience on this matter. I told him I would have no difficulty telling Bp. Imesch I consulted him, if he has no objection. He has none. So I did. Bishop Imesch will talk to the Cardinal."
Mullins was removed from ministry.
The second instance of intervention from the Chicago Archdiocese occurred in December 2002, when, records show, Cardinal Francis George inquired about the handling of an allegation nearly 30 years earlier. The victim, George Knotek, first reported the abuse in 1975 to Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Vonesh, who responded by sending the Rev. Donald Pock, then pastor at Divine Savior Parish in Downers Grove, for alcohol treatment and allowed him to return to ministry, the records show.
The diocese kept Pock's secret until another man — a priest from Minnesota — came forward in March 2002 and accused Pock of sexually abusing him when he was a teen, records show. The Minnesota priest also had told the diocese about Knotek's earlier allegation, but he said he did not know what happened to Knotek.
In the months that followed, the diocese made minimal effort to locate Knotek and did not reach out to him until George intervened with an apology, the records indicate.
"I am pained myself to learn of the abuse that you have suffered from a priest of the Church and the way in which what you had to say was so badly received," George wrote in December 2002. "The questions that you put to me in your letter I cannot answer, but I will ask for information from the Diocese of Joliet."
The Joliet Diocese later found the allegations against Pock credible and removed him from ministry in 2002. He died two years later.
Knotek filed a lawsuit in 2004 and settled out of court before receiving Pock's personnel file, so he was not privy to the sequence of events, his attorney Marc Pearlman said.
"The reason this is still an issue a decade later is because the diocese hasn't come out and told the entire truth," Pearlman said. "They let this thing out in dribs and drabs."
Diocesan officials said they have done everything they can to clean up the problem.
"We can't change what happened," said diocese spokesman James Dwyer. "We can understand emotionally why someone would want to bring it up and strike back at the church, and if that's cathartic for them, so be it. Our concern is to move forward and show that we are serious about making sure mistakes of the past are not repeated."
The documents also detail the diocese's long-held practice of moving accused priests to other parishes or sending them on out-of-state assignments in response to allegations. Some received therapy at church-sanctioned facilities, while others simply met with a local doctor.
The records show that the Rev. Philip Dedera faced a steady stream of allegations over the course of more than two decades in the diocese, even as Imesch and his predecessor transferred the priest from parish to parish. In the mid-1990s they removed him from a parish in Momence and sent him to a treatment center for sexual disorders in St. Louis. When Imesch and Kaffer placed him in a job at Edward Hospital in Naperville in 1998, Kaffer told him to seek advice about his new post from the Rev. Gary Berthiaume, whom the diocese had made a chaplain at Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove.
Berthiaume, an old acquaintance of Imesch, had served prison time in Michigan for a child molestation conviction in 1977. Imesch has acknowledged that he was aware of his friend's past when he brought him to the Joliet Diocese.
When the priest scandal engulfed the church in the spring of 2002, Imesch was forced to remove several priests from ministry, including Dedera. The move drew a pointed response from the head chaplain at Edward, who wrote a letter to Kaffer citing feelings of "anger and betrayal" that Imesch placed Dedera at the hospital without informing her of his problems.
"What troubles me most is the stance of the Catholic Church about these matters. Why is it that when priests are involved in alcoholism and/or sexual misconduct, the church gets help for them and makes the determination that they are not fit for the parish? But the church turns around and makes the judgment that they are suited for ministry in the hospitals and nursing homes (supposedly because they are more supervised). Yet such places are filled with vulnerable people," wrote the Rev. Shelly Bergstrom, a Baptist minister. "This makes no sense to me and the practice should stop."
Dedera declined comment Wednesday.
It's stories like these that David Rudofski, 38, hoped to expose as he fought for the diocese files. He hasn't read them all yet — he can only read the records for about 10 minutes before putting them down in disgust and anger — but he knows the cases aren't dissimilar from his own.
Rudofski was 8 years old when the Rev. James Burnett fondled him while the boy was making his first confession, documents indicate. Court records show he immediately told his mother that the priest had forced him to pull down his pants in the confessional, but she chastised him for making up an outlandish story on such an important day.
After his mother's reprimand, Rudofski said he buried the memory and went on to have a normal childhood. He says it wasn't until adulthood, when he struggled with nightmares about a caped man chasing him, that he confronted the past.
He sued the diocese in 2007.
In an October 2006 affidavit for her son's lawsuit, Patricia Rudofski said she scolded him for lying because she trusted her pastor. She said she forgot about her son's allegation until years later, when another alleged victim accused Burnett of abuse.
"I was feeling horrible thinking about my son, thinking that I'm the one who told him to do whatever the priest said," she said in the affidavit. "I mean, I'm feeling horrible, and I just — it was like a flashback. ... Oh my God, he told me."
David Rudofski, who received a personal apology from former Bishop Peter Sartain in 2010, said he hopes the newly released files will help his mother heal, as well.
"I've told her many, many times that I don't blame her for what happened," he said. "Maybe when she sees these files released and sees how it can help people, she will be able to move forward."
Burnett, 70, did not return a phone message for comment.
Rudofski eventually settled for $600,000 and access to 16 priests' personnel files.
For the diocese, "it's not about doing the right thing. It's about protecting the diocese," said his attorney, Terrence M. Johnson. Getting records "was the worst, most abusive process of discovery as a lawyer I've ever seen."
After a series of courtroom skirmishes, Rudofski appeared to win a moral war that many thought was unwinnable.
"He is a hero for our movement," said Blaine, the SNAP president. "He deserves a great deal of gratitude because his courage in speaking up and holding his ground will make children safer in the Joliet Diocese. He's given the entire diocese a gift, even if they don't realize it."