Bishop Imesch, in His Words

Chicago Tribune
February 9, 2006,0,1058679.story?coll=chi-newsopinion-hed

Americans curious about the failure of many Roman Catholic bishops to report sexual abuse by clerics owe gratitude to Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch. During a deposition given last August and unsealed by a judge last week, the bishop put words to the code of silence that insulated his subordinates--if not the innocents they allegedly exploited:

- In one deposition excerpt, attorney Jeffrey Anderson quizzed Imesch about a deacon's report to diocesan officials in 1985 that a Woodridge priest, Rev. Edward Stefanich, might be having an improper relationship with a 14-year-old girl. Did Imesch contact police? "I would not do that," the bishop said. "There is no verification. There is no hard evidence that this was happening. And I'm not going to go say, `Hey, police, go check on my priest.'"

Anderson: "If you had reported this to the police in 1985 to investigate the suspicion ... this girl wouldn't have been raped?"

Imesch: "I'm not going to go to the police and say I've got a suspicion that one of my priests is dating a young girl. I'm not going to do that."

Anderson: "She was a 14-year-old girl."

Imesch: "We didn't know that at the time."

Anderson: "You didn't ask."

Imesch: "We didn't know who to ask."

The deacon, sensibly, did go to the police. Stefanich pleaded guilty in August 1987 to criminal sexual abuse and was sentenced to 6 months in jail. He also left the priesthood.

- Anderson asked about Rev. Larry Gibbs, accused of abusing boys in Lombard. Imesch said Gibbs acknowledged skinny-dipping with the boys and playing games while they were nude--conduct Imesch called "inappropriate." Imesch moved Gibbs to a Lockport parish, where he again was accused. When Anderson asked Imesch if he considered the 1980 Lombard allegations against Gibbs credible, the bishop replied: "Well, I think what happened happened. It was not considered a crime or a criminal activity so there was no reason for me not to transfer him."

- In the late 1970s, a Michigan priest confided to Imesch that he had sexually abused an altar boy there. The admission came after the priest, Rev. Gary Berthiaume, had been arrested, but before he was convicted of molesting the boy. Why hadn't Imesch reported Berthiaume's admission to Michigan investigators? "Well, I don't think that was my responsibility," the bishop said. "He is charged with a crime. He has to be given a trial. My going to the police doesn't have anything to do with whether he's guilty or not." Years later, Imesch invited Berthiaume to work at a retreat house in the Joliet diocese.

Imesch's words eloquently explain why this abuse crisis is not a matter for the church alone to resolve. Many of the bishops who covered up crimes, and who enabled predators to hurt new victims, still face no formal consequences.

Imesch said in a weekend letter to his flock that these incidents occurred "before psychologists recognized that behavior of that kind was indicative of a severe problem that could not be adequately treated." The diocese now notifies civil authorities of any abuse allegations, he said. "The media reports tend to portray me as someone who doesn't care about the safety of children. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of us can look back on our lives and find things we should have done differently."

No, it's not the news media that portray Imesch in a troubling light. His words suffice.

A diocesan spokesman told the Tribune that Imesch, who is 74 and plans to retire at 75, has asked the Vatican to look for his replacement.

So Bishop Imesch, it appears, will be allowed to leave on his terms. How convenient for him.

The people molested by criminals he didn't report will continue to live with the consequences.

And the many honorable, selfless priests of the Joliet diocese can soon begin rebuilding the trust that Bishop Imesch has destroyed.


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