Bishop Says He Knew of Scandal
Criticism Grows over Imesch's History of Handling Sex-Abuse Allegations
By Todd Lighty and David Heinzmann
May 16, 2002
Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch seemed unfazed as a lawyer questioned him in 1995 about bringing in a priest who had been convicted of molesting an altar boy in Michigan.
"If you had a child," the lawyer recalled asking the bishop during the deposition for a civil suit, "wouldn't you be concerned that the priest they were saying mass with had been convicted of sexually molesting children?"
Replied Imesch, "I don't have any children."
After presiding over the Catholic Diocese of Joliet for more than two decades, Imesch increasingly is facing criticism that he didn't do enough to protect children.
Court records and interviews with victims, church officials and attorneys with access to depositions show Imesch has mishandled accusations of abuse in the same way that some other U.S. bishops have--practices which have set off a firestorm of protest against the church leadership.
Imesch transferred at least four priests accused of abusing children without notifying their new parishes and quietly accepted into the diocese a convicted child molester who was prescribed medication to stifle his sex drive, according to court records and interviews.
In addition, law enforcement officials who conducted separate investigations in the 1980s into two priests suspected of abusing children told the Tribune that Imesch or his aides refused to fully cooperate and, in one instance, relocated a priest in the midst of the investigation.
As anguished parents turned to Imesch with their concerns about sexually aggressive priests, the bishop ignored the families or defended the priests by saying they had been cured in therapy and were fit to return to parishes where there were children, according to court records, interviews and parents' letters.
Imesch and other Catholic bishops plan to gather in mid-June in Dallas to create a national policy for handling complaints about sexually abusive priests. The bishops have faced increasing pressure to adopt a policy to quickly defrock priests who molest children.
Catholics across the country are angry not only because priests have abused children, but even more so because of the way some church leaders have dealt with the priests. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, in particular, has come under fire for transferring priests among parishes after they were found to have molested children.
Under mounting criticism, Imesch last month did an about-face.
For the first time, he agreed to turn over church records to state prosecutors on 16 priests accused of molesting children. He also has removed 10 priests from public ministry.
Imesch declined to be interviewed but in a statement last month said, "We ... acknowledge that, in retrospect, some of our past actions were inconsistent with our goals to protect children and act responsibly and compassionately toward victims."
An estimated 600,000 Catholics reside within the seven counties that constitute the Joliet diocese--DuPage, Kankakee, Will, Grundy, Ford, Iroquois and Kendall. Many attend church in the diocese's 120 parishes, which are served by 194 priests.
Within a year of his installation as bishop in 1979, Imesch was confronted with allegations that one of his priests had engaged in inappropriate behavior with boys from parishes in DuPage County during weekends to a cabin at Wonder Lake in McHenry County.
The allegations also reached the state's attorney's office when an employee at Christ the King School in Lombard told them of Rev. Lawrence Gibbs' alleged behavior.
John Rotunno, then an investigator for the DuPage County state's attorney, said a dozen boys told him Gibbs gave them alcohol and told them to strip so he could watch them run "around naked at his cabin."
As Rotunno tried to build a case, he sought assistance from the Joliet diocese. But what happened next, Rotunno said, surprised him: The diocese removed Gibbs from the parish and refused to say where he was.
"I went to the rectory to pick him up, and they said he had been moved and they would not give me one iota of information about him," he said.
Diocese officials repeatedly refused to return his phone calls, he said.
"I told them I was an investigator from the DuPage County state's attorney's office and that it was in regard to Father Gibbs," Rotunno said. "They never called me back."
With Gibbs gone from Christ the King parish and the diocese not cooperating, Rotunno's investigation ended. No charges were filed.
Rotunno said he should have been more persistent and gone to the chancery in person to demand information about Gibbs, who according to court records, had been staying with his family.
In the meantime, worried parents whose children were interviewed by authorities wrote Imesch.
"We are very concerned that he is in another parish and will probably be working with young boys," a mother and father wrote in July 1980.
In response, Imesch assured them Gibbs would receive professional help.
"I have spoken with the civil authorities involved and have been assured that they were unable to uncover any evidence that any criminal activity took place," he wrote in an August 1980 letter. "I trust their judgment in this matter and repeat that while I do not condone what has occurred, I also do not find it serious enough to withhold an assignment from Father Gibbs."
But Rotunno, unaware of Imesch's letter until recently, said Imesch misstated what officials with the state's attorney's office had uncovered.
Although he believed that more serious crimes against children had been committed, the evidence Rotunno said he had collected at that point was possible misdemeanor charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
In testimony given in January 1994 in another case, Imesch said the only allegation he had heard regarding Gibbs and the children was that the priest "poured honey down the bathing suits of some of the boys."
"I didn't take any other steps to find out anything because I felt the state's attorney, if he didn't find out anything, I'm not going to find out anything," Imesch testified.
Imesch transferred Gibbs to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lockport in 1980. Fresh sex-abuse allegations against Gibbs surfaced in a lawsuit 13 years later.
According to the suit, soon after Gibbs' arrival in 1980, the priest allegedly started abusing an 11-year-old boy. Gibbs, according to the suit, gave the boy liquor during up to 50 incidents of sexual abuse.
The diocese settled the case for an undisclosed sum. Gibbs, who could not be reached for comment, is no longer in the priesthood.
"Bishop Imesch only paid lip-service to us," said the mother of one 14-year-old boy who had been to Gibbs' cabin.
Parents who say their children said that Imesch has compounded their pain in the way in which he and the diocese have responded to their warnings about abusive priests.
Ordeal for victim, family
The father of a 14-year-old girl molested by the Rev. Edward Stefanich in the mid-1980s at St. Scholastica parish in Woodridge said the bishop ignored their complaints.
Stefanich first met the girl when she was in 1st grade, she said. Over the years, family members said, Stefanich, who was in his late 30s, developed a strong interest in the 14-year-old girl and began abusing her.
Stefanich rented an apartment from a relative of the girl's, said the victim, now a married, 32-year-old mother of two.
"Whenever I'd spend the night [at the relative's], he would come over to visit and then molest me after she was asleep," she said.
In 1986, about 1 1/2 years after the abuse began, her parents and grandmother learned about the abuse and wrote letters to Imesch.
"We went to the church, and they acted like nothing was wrong. My wife wrote a letter to Imesch, and he never responded to it," said the girl's father. "Nobody ever said they were sorry. They destroyed our religion."
Around the same time, Deacon James Monahan also notified Imesch's top deputy, Auxiliary Bishop Roger Kaffer, about the abuse, according to a Woodridge police report. In an interview with detectives, Monahan, who died a decade ago, said he learned of Stefanich's sexual misconduct from a friend of the victim.
"Mr. Monahan, at that point, contacted the diocese in Joliet and advised them of the allegation, and they advised they would take care of it," according to the police report. "The person he spoke to at the time was Bishop Kaffer."
But when Monahan saw nothing was being done a year later, he notified police.
James Grady, a former Woodridge Police Department detective who investigated Stefanich's sexual abuse of the girl, said Imesch was less than cooperative.
When investigators sought evidence that Stefanich's rented an apartment where he molested the girl and that the priest had bought a car for her even though she was too young to drive, Grady said Imesch refused to give him the records.
Imesch insisted that he would only provide records to the state's attorney, then showed Grady and his partner the door. Grady said Imesch eventually did turn the records over to prosecutors.
"He was not cooperating at all," Grady said. "The most glaring thing was that this guy knew [Stefanich] was doing it."
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.
Imesch has described himself as a staunch supporter of his priests. In court testimony, Imesch has said he views a significant part of his duties as bishop to help priests.
In part, that is why he brought an old colleague from days in the Detroit diocese into the Joliet diocese in the 1980s, even though Imesch knew the priest had been convicted of sexually abusing a child years earlier and was prescribed Depo-Provera to decrease his sex drive.
The priest, Rev. Gary Berthiaume, was sentenced in 1978 to 6 months in prison for sexually abusing an altar boy at Our Lady of Sorrows in Farmington Hills, Mich., where Imesch once was pastor.
In the last month, Imesch twice has been accused of failing to alert even his fellow bishops about past child sexual-abuse allegations made against priests who Imesch had transferred out of the Joliet diocese.
Rev. Fred Lenczycki was accused of molesting at least nine altar boys in the early 1980s at St. Isaac Jogues parish in Hinsdale. Imesch removed the priest and sent him to receive therapy at a church-run treatment facility in California.
After serving in a parish in California that knew of his past, Lenczycki in 1992 moved to St. Louis, took up residence in another suburban parish--where the pastor didn't known of his past--and began work as a hospital chaplain.
In a letter to the archbishop of St. Louis, Imesch recommended Lenczycki be granted full privileges as a priest and said there was nothing questionable on his record, St. Louis church officials said.
Lenczycki lived and worked in St. Louis for a decade before church officials there last month learned of his past sex-abuse allegations. They demanded Imesch recall him.
A week later, St. Louis officials learned of a second former Joliet diocese priest with past allegations of sexual abuse.
Rev. J. Anthony Meis had been removed in 1994 from his parish in Chebanse in Kankakee County after Imesch reached a secret settlement with a victim who said Meis had molested him that year.
Meis spent time in therapy and relocated to St. Louis in 1994 with Imesch's recommendation. He, too, was removed when St. Louis archdiocese officials learned of his past last month.
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