Joliet Diocese Stands out
Ousted Priests: Diocese Has One of Highest Percentages during Abuse Scandal
May 12, 2002
In the past two months, 10 of about 200 priests affiliated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet have been suspended or have resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct with minors, giving the suburban diocese one of the highest percentages in the nation of priests removed from their ministries since the national clergy sexual-abuse scandal broke in January, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of reported cases found.
By comparison, the Archdiocese of Chicago — which took steps to deal with sexual abuse of minors by priests a decade ago — has removed one of its nearly 950 active diocesan priests from ministry since January because of allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor.
In the Cleveland Diocese, which has 480 diocesan priests, 11 have been removed.
Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch and other diocesan officials say that, by removing priests from their duties while investigating allegations of abuse, they are doing what they can to deal with a serious problem.
"The number of priests removed, in relation to our total number of priests, means that Bishop Imesch is taking a close, hard look at the issue of sexual misconduct with minors," Sister Judith Davies, chancellor of the Joliet Diocese, said Friday in a written statement sent in response to requests for interviews with Imesch or one of his two auxiliary bishops.
"I cannot stress to you enough that our actions relative to this issue are being taken, first and foremost, to ensure that we are doing everything in our power to safeguard children, with the hope of ending the tragedy of child sexual abuse forever."
But some say the numbers reflect an alarming situation. They say the diocese has been lax in dealing with sexual abuse of minors by clergy for years, and now, amid the national scandal, is rushing to deal with a problem Imesch previously did little to fix, though he has led the diocese since 1979.
"Why on earth didn't they act sooner?" said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a victim-advocacy group. "That's why we're so skeptical when church leaders try to say: 'Now, we get it. Now, we understand.'"
"Bishops used to mollify angry parents by whisking Father out of town at midnight and sending him out of state," Clohessy said. "But given the glare of public scrutiny, maybe this bishop has gone a step further and said, 'Just to save ourselves, in terms of the law and in terms of public relations, we have to cut some of these guys loose now.' ... But don't get me wrong. Better late than never."
"They're doing the best damage control they can," said Joliet attorney Keith Aeschliman, who is fighting diocesan officials in an effort to make public now-sealed court documents that contain allegations of sexual abuse by Joliet priests.
Leaders of the Joliet Diocese — which includes 600,000 Catholics in DuPage, Will, Kendall, Grundy, Kankakee, Ford and Iroquois counties — have said they want to keep the documents secret to protect the privacy of those who say they were victimized.
"They say they want to protect the children involved," Aeschliman said. "But what they're really saying is, 'We're interested in covering our read ends,' and, 'We're interested in doing anything that we can to make things secret so people can't see all the things that we were doing over the years.'"
A Will County judge is expected to rule June 6 on whether to make the documents public. Nine of the priests who have been suspended since March or who have retired under a cloud in the Joliet Diocese are diocesan priests.
One priest, the Rev. Gary Berthiaume, technically a Cleveland priest, spent many years in the Joliet Diocese and was brought to Illinois by Imesch, who was his pastor at a Michigan parish where Berthiaume was convicted of abusing two adolescent brothers in the 1970s. Berthiaume spent six months in prison.
A man in his 30s, who says he was molested by two Joliet priests in the early 1980s and reported the abuse to the diocese in 1993, said his dealings with Imesch left him angry.
"My whole point was that these guys shouldn't be around kids, they shouldn't be priests because it's just downright not Catholic," said the man, who asked that his name and the names of his alleged abusers not be printed.
"(Imesch) said that, as a Christian, I needed to forgive this guy. He sits there and agrees with you, puts on a dog-and-pony show, and then actually does nothing. This approach works because people don't want to tell anybody. When I was 17 years old, I didn't want to tell anybody. I wouldn't have taken (the priests) to court for $50 million because it would have ruined my entire life. They feed on that."
Karl Mauer, vice president of the Catholic Citizens of Illinois, is unimpressed that the diocese made public the names of the 10 priests.
"Imesch makes the Enron executives look credible," Mauer said. "I'm speculating that Rome has made it very clear that whatever the authorities ask of you, you should do. These are orders from headquarters. Absent that, I don't think he would have done it."
Mauer, and many who share his conservative mind-set, connect the clergy sex-abuse scandal directly with what they see as a homosexual subculture in the Roman Catholic priesthood.
The sex abuse in the Joliet Diocese "indicates that, for the last 20 years, homosexuals have been more than welcome in the Joliet Diocese," Mauer said.
Most experts on sexual abuse say there is no link between homosexuality and pedophilia — sexual abuse of children.
But things are less clear, they say, regarding ephybophelia — having sexual relations with older teen-agers.
Many of the allegations against the 10 priests affiliated with Joliet who have been removed from ministry in recent weeks involve alleged misconduct with older teens.
Jason Berry, a Louisiana author and journalist who is Roman Catholic, has written several books about sexual abuse and other crises in the Roman Catholic priesthood. Berry said he first heard of Imesch when he read a deposition the bishop gave for a civil lawsuit in the 1980s.
As part of that 1983 Michigan lawsuit against Berthiaume, lawyers for the family of one of the alleged abuse victims asked the bishop about chastity in the priesthood.
After going back and forth with Imesch over whether it's a "vow," "pledge" or "promise" of chastity that diocesan priests take at their ordination, the lawyer asked the bishop what he thought the punishment for violating the chastity promise would be.
"Eternal hellfire," Imesch answered, adding for the benefit of the written transcript of his sworn statement that would later be prepared, "Put in that I laughed. There is no penalty. The penalty, that's a moral failing or fault with a person."
Berry included that part of Imesch's deposition in one of his books.
"That has always been one of the most incredible statements to me," Berry said. "He's almost just smirking when he says this."
Asked why the current scandal has left such a mark on Joliet, Berry said, "I would suspect the answer is Imesch."
These are excerpts from a Jan. 24, 1994, sworn deposition of Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch, with attorney questions followed by Imesch's responses:
Question: "At the time you heard these allegations, you were aware, were you not, sexual contact by an adult priest with a minor was criminal activity?"
Answer: "I really didn't know that."
Q: "When did you first, looking back on it, know that?"
A: "I don't know that ..."
Q: "Were you aware in the '70s ... that the sexual contact or sexual molestation of a minor by a priest would be, could be, could well be more damaging because of that priest's position of power and authority?"
A: "I don't believe that statement."
Q: "You don't believe that statement?"
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