Suit Claims Abuse by Priest for 7 Years
By Bob Merrifield, Michael Hirsley and Michael Martinez
January 5, 1993
A 22-year-old man who charges that a Roman Catholic priest in the Joliet diocese sexually abused him dozens of times for seven years beginning when he was 11 years old, is suing the priest and the diocese for $5 million.
The civil lawsuit filed Monday in Will County Circuit Court also claims that Bishop Joseph Imesch of the Joliet diocese did not thoroughly investigate earlier sexual misconduct complaints against the priest, Rev. Lawrence M. Gibbs.
Instead, the suit alleges, Imesch "clandestinely transferred" Gibbs to the parish where he sexually abused the defendant, Joseph Dittrich, 22, of Lockport.
Dittrich claims he was repeatedly sexually abused by Gibbs while the priest was associate pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lockport and later while the youth attended a Catholic boarding school in Lemont.
Gibbs, 48, has been removed from his position as director of campus ministry for the diocese and from his residency at Sts. Peter and Paul parish in Naperville. He is the fourth priest removed from Joliet diocese parishes in the past five years because of allegations of sexual abuse.
The suit, filed by Joliet attorney Keith M. Aeschliman, is the second in less than a month accusing priests in the Joliet diocese of sexual abuse of children. It is the first in which an alleged victim has allowed his identity to be made public.
The suit claims Gibbs began molesting Dittrich when Dittrich was 11 and gave the boy liquor during up to 50 incidents of sexual abuse.
Prior to the alleged molestation of Dittrich, which began in 1980, church officials were warned that Gibbs was a danger to children, the suit alleges, and Du Page County sheriff's police had conducted an investigation in 1979 of allegations that Gibbs was molesting children while assigned to Christ the King Catholic Church in Lombard. Chief Robert Soucek of the Du Page County Sheriff's Department said Monday that Gibbs has no police record in Du Page County.
Aeschliman said the case apparently was never prosecuted. But he said parishioners were interviewed by police investigating reports of sexual abuse by Gibbs in 1979 and they said they wrote letters to Imesch to complain about the priest.
Imesch, who was installed Aug. 28, 1979 as the third bishop of the Joliet diocese, is named as a defendant in the suit.
"Numerous other notices were given to church officials," Aeschliman said.
"In response (Gibbs) was immediately removed from his assignment in Lombard and transferred to St. Joseph Church in Lockport, where he was placed in charge of the altar boys training program and where his abuse of children continued." The attorney contended the church made the transfer "clandestinely" to cover up the incidents.
Sister Judith Davies, chancellor of the diocese, said, "Our understanding of the facts is considerably different from those alleged," but would not elaborate.
"The only way we will respond to those allegations is in the courtroom," said Davies.
But in a written statement, the diocese said it placed Gibbs on administrative leave and sent him to a therapeutic center "immediately" upon being advised of the allegations made against the priest "several months ago" by attorneys for the plaintiff.
The statement concluded: "We are deeply distressed and sorry for any abuse of the plaintiff and have expressed our concern and our desire to assist him pastorally and with professional counseling. We also offer our assistance to anyone else who may be affected."
Aeschliman said Dittrich wanted his identity revealed "because it was part of his way of coming to terms with what happened."
To press criminal charges, victims of sexual abuse must come forward within two years of the incident or before their 19th birthday, Aeschliman said.
The abuse of Dittrich continued while he attended St. Vincent De Paul in Lemont, a boarding school for young men preparing to attend a seminary, the suit contends.
While there, Dittrich's counselor was Gibbs, who frequently arranged for the youth to accompany him on overnight stays at the priest's cottage at Wonder Lake in McHenry County.
The civil suit in Joliet follows a year in which churches across the continent have been repeatedly stung by sexual abuse allegations, none more acutely that the Roman Catholics.
In the Chicago archdiocese alone, 22 priests were removed from parishes because of such allegations in the past year and a half. In response, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin headed an effort to revise archdiocesan policy for handling sexual abuse allegations against clergy, including greater involvement of non-priests in the investigative and administrative process.
The Joliet diocese is now in the midst of revising its policy for handling sexual abuse cases involving clergy, Davies said.
According to the diocese, Gibbs has served in eight parishes since he was ordained in 1973. Those parishes are St. James the Apostle in Glen Ellyn, from May 1973 to June 1977; Divine Savior in Downers Grove, from June 14 to Sept. 1, 1977; Christ the King in Lombard, from September 1977 to July 1980; St. Joseph in Lockport, from July 1980 to September 1982; St. Mary Immaculate in Plainfield, from September 1982 to June 1986; St. Joseph in Rockdale, from June 1986 to June 1991, except for a stint at Holy Cross in Joliet, from January 1988 to June 1988; and Sts. Peter and Paul in Naperville, from June 1991 until he was put on administrative leave several months ago.
Parishioners at Christ the King in Lombard and Sts. Peter and Paul in Naperville said a letter from Imesch was read aloud during Mass on Sunday.
It said "some serious allegations" had been raised against Gibbs, according to a female retiree who lives across the street from Sts. Peter and Paul Parish Center.
Gibbs often said mass at the Naperville parish, she said, adding, "He was a wonderful man as far as we know. When he gave the sermon, he tried to make it personal to them, he tried to make it mean something to them."
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