Out in Open Best Remedy for Church

By Ted Slowik
The Herald News
April 13, 2002

Bishop Joseph Imesch, head of the Joliet Diocese, raised the question this week whether a priest who is guilty of sexual abuse and has undergone therapy should ever be admitted to a limited ministry.

He raised the question after the Cleveland Diocese suspended nine priests, including the Rev. Gary Berthiaume, an old friend that Imesch knew since the two worked together in the Archdiocese of Detroit in the 1970s. A week ago, Berthiaume was relieved of his duties as chaplain by Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove.

Berthiaume served prison time for molesting a 12-year-old altar boy more than 20 years ago. This week, Imesch outraged some when he expressed sympathy for his friend.

"It is very difficult for someone who has served 12 years as chaplain to have the (newspaper) ruin whatever is left of his life," Imesch told the Associated Press.

When considering the question of limited ministries for individuals who abused, it is important to grasp that great numbers of people who were sexually abused as youngsters talk about dealing with pain and shame every day of their lives. As adults, many survivors must seek continual treatment for alcoholism and failed relationships.

Nearly all of the stories reported today involve clergy abuse of minors that happened prior to 1992, when Catholic bishops adopted progressive policies for handling allegations of misconduct. The outrage expressed today is not about how Church authorities handle current cases; it is about how cases were dealt with 10, 20 and 30 or more years ago.

What we as journalists can report at this moment is provided by Church authorities or culled from court documents, both civil and criminal. Either way, our access is limited. Often, criminal charges were not filed against a molester because the statute of limitations expired or because the victim reported crimes to church authorities but not police.

Often, victims summoned the courage years after the fact to step forward, claim abuse and file a civil lawsuit seeking compensation from the Church. When civil settlements were reached — most commonly out of court — judges complied with Church requests that records be sealed to avoid publicly disclosing amounts paid to victims, depositions that church officials gave under oath and other information.

In Boston and other dioceses around the country, a court's forcing church authorities to disclose these documents has been a pivotal moment. The Boston case clearly illustrates that Church authorities have not been fully honest about what they knew and when they knew it. Only after the court ordered the records unsealed did the truth emerge.

Here in Joliet, diocesan officials are responding to increased media attention by saying they favor disclosure. But their actions tell another story. Just this week, the diocese asked that a hearing on the motion to unseal records be continued. That's their right. But it's important to view this in the context that the diocese has historically used every legal maneuver at its disposal to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information.

Without court evidence corroborating victims' claims, the press is very limited in what it can report. The effort to get to the truth hinges on these sealed court documents, and it would be in the best interests of all members of the Diocese of Joliet for the press to have access to these documents.

I believe the average person is prone to forgive, but that people will not tolerate failure to acknowledge past sins in the face of overwhelming evidence. The widespread outrage is not so much about the tragic abuse of young people, but about the systemic coverup that followed many substantiated reports of abuse.

The issue right now is not about homosexuality in the priesthood. It's not about celibacy, women priests or married priests. This moment belongs to victims who suffer lifelong emotional trauma because some individuals did not control their sexual desires. Until Catholics and non-Catholics alike perceive that everything is out in the open, the healing process cannot move forward.

Until diocesan officials accept this reality, there will be no fundamental change. As long as individuals guilty of misconduct continue to be held in high regard, the Church is open to criticism.


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