Judge: Unseal Abuse Files
Case against Priest: Records Must Be Opened in 1993 Gibbs Lawsuit
By Charles B. Pelkie
The Herald News
June 20, 2002
JOLIET — A Will County judge on Wednesday ordered the release of dozens of sealed documents connected to a sexual abuse lawsuit filed against a Roman Catholic priest in 1993.
Judge Herman Haase, however, ruled that the names of alleged sexual abuse victims and their parents should be blacked out before the documents are released to the public. Haase also ordered that psychological reports and other mental health records associated with the Rev. Lawrence M. Gibbs should remain sealed.
The judge issued his ruling in response to a motion filed earlier this year by the Chicago Tribune, which cited First Amendment rights in seeking the release of court records associated with the Gibbs lawsuit.
The files that Haase ordered unsealed include letters to Bishop Joseph Imesch from parishioners at Christ the King Catholic Church in Lombard, which is where Gibbs was stationed when allegations of abuse involving young boys surfaced in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The files also include the bishop's written responses to those parishioners.
The Herald News already has obtained a number of the documents that were the subject of the the judge's court ruling.
In one letter dated Aug. 7, 1980, a parishioner expressed concerns about Gibbs' transfer to St. Joseph Church in Lockport, a parish with a school.
"I was horrified at the thought that Father Larry has been placed among our youngsters again in light of his poor behavioral patterns with young men," the writer asked before adding: "Are we to turn our heads and pretend this was all a nightmare at Christ the King and hope it won't happen again?"
Imesch responded on Aug. 18, 1980, that he had insisted that Gibbs receive "professional help, a need which I feel is indicated by his behavior, and I have appointed him to a parish with a priest whom I believe will be of great help to him."
Local attorney Keith Aeschliman in 1993 filed a civil lawsuit alleging that Gibbs, while serving at St. Joseph Church, sexually abused Joseph Dittrich between 1980 and 1987.
Dittrich was 22 when Aeschliman filed the lawsuit. The complaint alleged that Gibbs brought Dittrich as a young boy to his cabin in Lake County. Gibbs got the boy drunk at the cabin and then molested him, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint also referred to allegations of abuse against Gibbs while he served at Christ the King. 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 eventually were settled. But the sums, like many of the depositions and documents filed in connection with the complaints, were impounded by the court.
In a related development, Haase on Wednesday declined to lift the protective orders that have kept depositions taken in the civil case sealed for years. Aeschliman filed a motion earlier this year seeking to lift the orders so the records could be transferred to prosecutors in Will and DuPage counties to review for potential criminal charges.
Haase, however, noted that prosecutors have always had the power to subpoena records and files as part of a grand jury investigation. He noted that the orders were granted to protect the identities of victims and their parents, many of whom cooperated on condition of confidentiality, as well as innocent priests whose names came up in reports, but who were not charged with wrongdoing.
"The orders were not entered to protect the guilty or to save diocesan or chancery office officials from embarrassment or discomfort," Haase wrote. "Persons who engage in sexual assaults on children are criminals and should be prosecuted. If convicted, they should be sentenced under the law no matter who they are or what their status in society or the church. Likewise, if diocesan or chancery office personnel made mistakes or errors of judgment in the process, it is not the court's business to try to shield them."
In April, a month after Aeschliman filed his motion, the diocese voluntarily handed over sealed documents to Will and DuPage prosecutors.
One couple, John and Carole Powers, alleged Wednesday that their son was abused by a priest when he was a high school seminarian at St. Charles Borromeo Center in Romeoville. They said they have met with Imesch and have discussed their case with Will County prosecutors.
"As of right now, we're waiting for the state's attorney to make a decision as to whether they will file a criminal charge against this pervert," John Powers said.
The state's attorney's office did not return calls for comment on the status of the investigation or whether prosecutors have subpoenaed documents from the diocese.
Eleven priests associated with the Joliet Diocese have been suspended from their ministries in recent months because of past allegations of sexual abuse, and one has been reinstated.
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