Attorney: Open Files of Sex Case
Priest Accused: Local Lawyer Says Files Have Records That Could Stop Future Abuse
By Charles B. Pelkie firstname.lastname@example.org
The Herald News
April 5, 2002
JOLIET — A local attorney wants permission to open sealed court documents connected with a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of a man who alleged that he was abused by a Roman Catholic priest from Lockport in the 1980s.
Attorney Keith Aeschliman argues in a motion filed Thursday that documents the court sealed in connection with his 1993 lawsuit include records that could prevent future acts of criminal sexual abuse by diocesan priests.
He insisted on Thursday that the impounded records contain evidence of sexual abuse that could provide the Will County state's attorney's office cause to file criminal charges against other priests. The documents include allegations of sexual abuse that still would fall within the statute of limitations, the attorney said.
Criminal sex charges can be filed for up to 10 years after a victim reaches the age of 18, provided the sexual abuse was reported to police before he or she reached the age of 21, according to statute.
Aeschliman believes the statute of limitations could be extended. "It's a serious enough offense," he said. "If (the offense) can be adequately proven, it should be substantially longer."
Aeschliman filed the motion in connection with a civil lawsuit alleging that the Rev. Lawrence M. Gibbs, while serving as a priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lockport, sexually abused Joseph Dittrich between 1980 and 1987. Dittrich was 22 years old when Aeschliman filed the lawsuit.
The complaint alleged that Gibbs in 1980 received permission from Dittrich's parents to bring the 11-year-old boy to his cabin in Lake County. Gibbs got the boy drunk at the cabin and then molested him, according to the lawsuit. The pattern of abuse occurred five to seven times within a 7-year period, the lawsuit stated.
The complaint also referred to allegations of abuse against Gibbs while he served as a priest at Christ the King Catholic Church in Lombard. Aeschliman filed lawsuits in 1994 on behalf of two 29-year-old men who alleged they were molested by the priest at his cabin when they were boys attending the church in the late 1970s.
All three lawsuits accused Bishop Joseph Imesch of failing to report the alleged sexual abuse to the proper authorities. The complaints also alleged that the bishop "knew or should have known" about the alleged sexual misconduct and that he should have taken steps to keep the priest away from children.
All three lawsuits eventually were settled. But the sums, like many of the depositions and documents filed in connection with the complaints, were impounded by the court.
Aeschliman filed the motion to unseal the records as allegations of sexual abuse by priests surfaced across the country in recent months. In March, Cardinal Bernard Law of the Boston Archdiocese turned over to prosecutors the names of more than 80 current and former priests accused of sexual abuse in the past 50 years.
Imesch said on Thursday that he had not seen Aeschliman's motion and that he does not know what documents the attorney wants to unseal.
He denied allegations that the diocese did not investigate allegations of abuse while Gibbs was at Christ the King Church. Gibbs was questioned extensively by DuPage County authorities, but charges were never filed. Court records also show that the bishop ordered a psychological evaluation of Gibbs.
"The (DuPage County) state's attorney investigated (the case)," the bishop said. "They said there was no reason to bring charges against him. What more could I do?"
Imesch said Gibbs engaged in inappropriate behavior while at Christ the King Church. But his actions there did not rise to the level of sexual abuse, he said.
Indeed, a motion filed by the attorney for the diocese in one of the 1994 cases refers to a deposition in which the plaintiff stated that the priest never touched the defendant's sex organs, which statute requires as a qualification for sexual conduct.
The bishop noted that what occurred while Gibbs was at St. Joseph Church in Lockport qualified as sexual abuse. Gibbs was relieved of his ministerial duties and has since left the priesthood.
Will County State's Attorney Jeff Tomczak said Thursday that he will review whatever documentation is presented to his office to determine whether criminal charges are warranted. He noted, however, that the statute of limitations could prevent him from moving forward in some cases.
The state's attorney insisted that priests will not get a break if charges are appropriate. His office pursues a no-probation policy for criminal sex offenders. "If any child has been sexually abused, whether it's by a priest or someone else, we will pursue the matter as long as the case can be prosecuted," Tomczak said.
Aeschliman is scheduled to present his motion to the court on Tuesday.
Reporter Charles B. Pelkie can be reached at (815) 729-6039 or via e-mail at email@example.com.
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