Views on Imesch, Scandal Divided but Strong

By Christy Gutowski
Daily Herald [Joliet IL]
May 17, 2006

Three decades after he was molested by a priest, George Knotek said he was "victimized again" when he reached out for Bishop Joseph Imesch's help.

"He was guarded and outwardly gracious but legally cunning," the Minnesota man said. "I was basically told I'd have to appear before a review committee rather than given an apology. They err on the side of protecting themselves rather than caring for survivors and children."

But Rev. Thomas White — a beloved Wheaton priest who was accused, then cleared, of sexual abuse — offered a sharply different perspective. Imesch promptly placed him on leave in late 2003 after an Aurora man claimed White abused him 24 years earlier. Five months later, his accuser recanted and an exonerated White returned to St. Daniel the Prophet Catholic Church.

"I told (Imesch) it was a damn lie and he agreed," said White, now retired. "But he did what he had to do and put me on leave. There's all kinds of people trying to tear him apart, but he was a great bishop as far as I'm concerned. This man has served the church faithfully for 50 years."

As Imesch announced his resignation Tuesday, reaction was mixed but strong about his handling of allegations of priest sexual abuse — a problem that dogged him nearly from the onset.

Within a year of being installed in 1979, Imesch learned one of his priests at a DuPage County parish might have been involved in sexual misbehavior with several boys at his Wonder Lake cabin.

Imesch transferred Rev. Lawrence Gibbs in 1980 from Christ the King Elementary School in Lombard to a Lockport church, where the priest later was again accused of child abuse, this time of an 11-year-old boy.

During his tenure, Imesch moved a handful of other priests accused of inappropriate contact with children to new parishes and accepted into the diocese a convicted child molester who was taking prescribed medication as treatment.

In response to criticism that he didn't do enough to protect children, Imesch agreed to turn over to DuPage and Will prosecutors long-secret church records of accused priests — most of whom could no longer be prosecuted. He also removed several priests from public ministry.

Imesch's supporters such as White point out times were different early in his career since not as much was known about the high recidivism rate of sexual offenders.

Others, however, argue Imesch had plenty of anecdotal evidence by looking within his own diocese that rehabilitation many times was unsuccessful.

Knotek said former priest Donald Pock abused him in the early 1970s when he was a parishioner at Divine Savior Catholic Church in Downers Grove. At 16, Knotek said he was assaulted when he spent the night at the priest's home to talk about his own interest in becoming a priest.

"Ultimately, I locked myself in a bathroom until my mother finally came the next morning to take me to school," said Knotek, 52, whose younger brother, Michael, is a Chicago priest.

Knotek said he didn't report what had happened until he was 20. Nothing happened. Years later, he contacted Imesch after learning Pock was removed from the ministry in 2002 after past allegations surfaced that he molested a child at an Itasca church. Pock died in 2004.

Knotek said it was he who was treated at the guilty one. Added survivor John Welch of Atlanta, abused for six years until 1969 in Winfield: "His reputation is to protect the guilty. The diocese is in self-protect mode."

Although most of their lawsuits were tossed for statute-of-limitation reasons, a Glen Ellyn man's complaint so far has survived legal muster because he argued his memory of the abuse he suffered at 12 in 1969 in Lombard was repressed until 2001, when the national scandal erupted.

"I say good riddance and it's about time," the 49-year-old father of four children, all of whom attend Catholic schools, said of Imesch's departure.

"I don't blame him for what happened to me. But I do blame him for maintaining the atmosphere of double-dealing, mistreating victims and the hardball legal tactics they take in court to, in essence, re-victimize the victim."

As the man charged with prosecuting abusive priests in a large part of the diocese's jurisdiction, DuPage State's Attorney Joseph Birkett said progress has come but there's still plenty of room for improvement.

"As a Roman Catholic, I, too, was appalled," Birkett said. "Their (diocese) policy still has holes. They have to understand there is no authority under the law to conduct their own mini-investigations when allegations surface. They have to pick up the phone and call authorities."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.