Gibbs Prompted Red Flags
Documents Reveal Doubts about Priest Who Later Was Accused
By Charles B. Pelkie
The Herald News
June 22, 2002
JOLIET — Several church officials who examined seminarians expressed reservations in the early 1970s about the pending ordination of Lawrence M. Gibbs, court records released on Friday revealed.
Gibbs later would be named as the defendant in three civil lawsuits alleging that he had sexually abused two boys from Lombard and one boy from Lockport while he served as a parish priest in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The documents, which a Will County judge released on Friday, had been sealed in connection with those civil lawsuits, all of which were settled in the late 1990s for undisclosed sums.
The files also include correspondence between angry parishioners and Bishop Joseph Imesch, whom critics have accused of shuffling priests from parish to parish to cover up allegations of sexual abuse.
The bishop acknowledged in letters written during the summer of 1980 that both he and law enforcement officials had reviewed the allegations of sexual abuse against Gibbs. No criminal charges, however, were filed against the priest, and the bishop ordered that Gibbs undergo psychological counseling.
"I believe that Father Gibbs is an excellent priest and has served the people of your parish community extremely well," Imesch wrote to a parishioner at Christ the King Church in Lombard. "Despite what has occurred I believe that, given the necessary professional help, he can be an effective minister."
In another letter from that summer, the bishop tells a Christ the King parishioner: "I have spoken with the civil authorities involved and have been assured that they were unable to uncover any evidence that any criminal activity took place. I trust their judgment in this matter and repeat that while I do not condone what has occurred, I also do not find it serious enough to withhold an assignment from Father Gibbs."
The latter response was to a parishioner whose two sons reportedly spent time alone with Gibbs at his cabin in Lake County. The three lawsuits filed against Gibbs alleged that he took young boys up to his cabin, got them drunk and molested them.
"It is hard to believe that nothing has been done, except to remove him from our parish," the letter to Imesch reads. "We are concerned that he is in another parish, and will probably be working with young boys. We think he needs professional help, and should not be around young people until he gets some. We would not want other parents to go through the anguish and torment that we did."
The records show that Gibbs presented a problem for church officials even as they prepared to ordain him. At least two diocesan priests told the seminary board in 1971 that they had doubts about Gibbs' ability to function as a priest. Correspondence between church officials highlight these reservations and allude to problems Gibbs might have experienced prior to his ordination. But they contain no mention of sexual abuse.
Court pleadings from the 1993 civil lawsuits note that the seminary board voted 9-0-1 against ordaining Gibbs and recommended he serve as a layman or continue as a deacon indefinitely.
The pleading also quotes statements made by the Rev. James Lennon during a meeting of the seminary board before Gibbs' ordination. "I cannot recommend him. He lacks self-discipline. These things should have been caught in the seminary. His night hours preclude his being on the job during the day when he should be."
The document also states that Lennon, in 1977, after Gibbs had been ordained, was informed by parishioners of St. James the Apostle Church in Glen Ellyn that the priest had taken boys to his cabin and gotten them drunk and that there was "nudity and nude paddling of minors." Lennon said he would talk to the bishop — at the time it was Romeo Blanchette — about the allegations to ensure "that other boys were not subjected to his conduct in the future," the document states.
Lennon, who is now the pastor at St. Patrick Church in Joliet, did not return calls for comment Friday.
Before his ordination, Gibbs was assigned to serve as a deacon at St. Ambrose Church in Crest Hill under the direction of the Rev. William Cullen, who was pastor at the time. Cullen referred to tensions that could be a "possible source of scandal in (the) parish" during an interview in April 1971, the court pleading states. Cullen also stated that Gibbs possessed "no common sense — or judgment" and that he "cannot or will not accept direction." He recommended that Gibbs be sent to a parish with four to five other priests.
In a May 19, 1971, letter to the Rev. Daniel L. Ryan, who was the diocesan chancellor at the time, Cullen noted that he had requested "an immediate departure" for Gibbs. Having been denied and after being told that Gibbs would be transferred in two to three weeks, Cullen asked "for an abbreviated stay."
Cullen, who is now retired, told The Herald News on Friday that the potential scandal to which he referred had nothing to do with allegations of sexual abuse. Indeed, Cullen would later provide the court with an affidavit stating that he was never aware of sexual abuse allegations involving Gibbs.
Cullen described Gibbs as "a very unusual person" who would stay out late and remain in bed, sometimes until noon. He considered that at the time to be potentially scandalous. "I said (to Gibbs), 'Look, this is a blue-collar parish. Most people have already put in a half-day's work by the time you get up. You have to get up in the morning. You have to go to Mass,'" he said.
Gibbs is no longer a priest.
The media already had uncovered many of the court documents released Friday. Attorney Keith Aeschliman, who filed the civil lawsuits against the diocese in 1993, noted earlier this week that while the documents do not contain a smoking gun, they offer a better understanding of what church officials knew about Gibbs during the 1970s and 1980s.
Imesch has expressed regret over the way he handled the Gibbs case. But he has denied that he ever reassigned priests to cover up allegations of sexual abuse.
The Gibbs case is one of hundreds under review across the nation in connection with the priest sexual abuse scandal. 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.
In a written statement released Friday afternoon, the bishop said: "We are fully cooperating with civil authorities with the goal of resolving these past allegations, prosecuting any criminal activity and acting compassionately and fairly toward the victims of sexual abuse."
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