Man Wants Priest Abuse Lawsuit Opened up

By Christy Gutowski and Tia Jones
Chicago Daily Herald
August 9, 2005

A Glen Ellyn man's lawsuit against the Diocese of Joliet alleging a priest molested him decades ago has survived the usual legal death knell sounded in such cases and is forcing church leaders to take notice.

For at least the second time in 26 years of leading the diocese, Bishop Joseph Imesch will be deposed Thursday in a videotaped interview as part of the lawsuit.

The deposition will be held behind closed doors, which is routine, but the accuser and his advocates argue church records and related evidence, such as the videotape, should be open for public inspection.

On Monday, DuPage Judge Stephen J. Culliton ruled he will evaluate each piece of evidence individually rather than issue a blanket edict. The diocese had requested the court file be sealed from public view - a move that prompted criticism.

"Bishop Imesch is trying to keep a lid on all the dirty secrets," said Barbara Blaine, president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "He has been playing hardball tactics in court with the victims for years. We believe until the truth is told, people are still at risk."

Unlike similar sex abuse allegations, the 48-year-old man's lawsuit has survived legal challenges arguing the statute of limitations long ago expired. His lawyers successfully argued the clock did not start until after their client remembered what happened, which meant the case is viable.

The accuser, now a 48-year-old man with four children, all of whom attended Catholic schools, said he repressed the alleged abuse until 2001, when the national scandal erupted.

"The memories are very disturbing and certainly very painful to experience," he said Monday in a telephone interview. "It just kind of shoots you back to being that age and going through it all over again.

"I'm still in counseling, but I recently came to the point of realizing there is no way he can hurt me anymore."

The man, identified as John Doe in the suit, alleges former priest Edward Stefanich repeatedly molested him beginning at age 12 in 1969 when he attended Christ the King Elementary School in Lombard.

The former altar boy never reported the abuse. Stefanich, who lives in Joliet, pleaded guilty in 1987 to molesting a 14-year-old girl at St. Scholastica Catholic Church in Woodridge. He was sentenced to six months behind bars and agreed to leave the priesthood.

The Glen Ellyn man does not want his identity made public, but he and Blaine argue such information could easily be kept confidential in open court records by inking out his name. They argue sealed records shield the molester in a cloak of secrecy and create an atmosphere that allows future crimes to occur.

But John Cullen, a diocese spokesman, said blacking out names doesn't guarantee confidentially because the surrounding circumstances also are revealing. He said it was the diocese that recommended the judge review each document separately.

"We're not trying to hide anything," Cullen said. "It's about protecting people's individual privacy rights. The documents (if sealed) are still in the court file. It doesn't hurt anything."

Imesch, installed in 1979, has faced criticism that he didn't do enough to protect children earlier in his career. During his tenure, he transferred about four priests accused of molesting kids to new parishes and accepted into the diocese a convicted child molester who was in treatment.

In response to the criticism, Imesch in May 2002 agreed to turn over to prosecutors in DuPage and Will counties church records of a couple dozen accused priests. The allegations turned out to be either too old to pursue, unfounded, or the priest had died.

DuPage State's Attorney Joseph Birkett was able to glean a five- year prison sentence last year for one former priest, Fred Lenczycki, 60, of Glen Ellyn, for molesting three altar boys decades earlier in Hinsdale.

Birkett argued the clock had stopped in that case because the diocese transferred Lenczycki out of Illinois shortly after the complaint arose.

At the time, Birkett, himself a devout Catholic, had harsh criticism for Imesch. The prosecutor said the diocese, under Imesch's leadership, placed a higher priority on protecting its own rather than children.

In July 2003, state legislators voted overwhelmingly to approve changes to the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit in a sex abuse case from two to 10 years after the victim's 18th birthday, or five years after the victim realizes he or she was were harmed by an abuser.

Some accusers have tried to argue in court that the new law should apply retroactively, but the judge preceding over the lawsuits ruled against them.


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