Sex Suit against Priest Stirs Painful Memories

By Peter Kendall, Bob Merrifield and Michael Martinez
Chicago Tribune
January 10, 1993

Ken Japlon remembers well sitting in the Lombard police station as a boy, answering detectives' questions about a weekend he had spent at the cabin of his effervescent parish priest, Rev. Lawrence Gibbs.

Japlon, now a 27-year-old graduate student, told the detectives that several of his fellow altar boys from Christ the King Church in Lombard slept in a loft in the A-frame cabin near Wonder Lake, in McHenry County. But one particularly quiet boy was taken into a bedroom to sleep with the priest.

And during that long-ago interview that seemed to last for hours, Japlon also told the officers that the priest had taken boys aside during school to ask them explicit sexual questions. "He would ask, 'Have you ever done this? Have you ever done that?' " Japlon recalled.

No criminal charges were ever brought against the priest. But word spread among parishioners that he had been transferred to a position where he would have no contact with children.

So it was surprising to Japlon that some 15 years later a private investigator approached him, and dozens of other Catholic men his age, to plow the very same ground long abandoned by police.

They had, after all, believed the church would keep its eye on Gibbs.

The investigator, Cynthia Georgantis, and a lawyer, Keith Aeschliman, have since said they believe Gibbs sexually abused a number of boys during his tenures in several parishes in Du Page and Will Counties.

A lawsuit has been filed by Aeschliman on behalf of Joseph Dittrich, 22, of Lockport, who claims to have been abused by the priest dozens of times between the ages of 11 and 18.

The attorney says that "four or five" other suits charging Gibbs with abusing boys are in the offing.

But for now, the investigation and subsequent suit have stirred the memories of dozens of men who recall going to the cabin and, they say, participating in strange and sometimes illegal activities.

And only now are some parents learning that their children had kept secrets from them but shared their suspicions and stories with their friends.

In interviews with several parishioners, a portrait of Gibbs emerges as a controversial priest whom many parishioners eyed warily.

While his long, dramatic homilies enchanted some, they drove others to walk out in the middle of mass. Nevertheless, enough parishioners found his matrimonial mass so lovely that he was in considerable demand for weddings.

Some found him exuberant and pious, others found him so "bubbly" that he seemed beneath his religious calling. Boys teased him behind his back.

"He seemed to go overboard on everything," said Dianna Callaghan, 22, who was a parishioner while Gibbs was associate pastor at St. Joseph's Church in Lockport from 1980 to 1982.

"You know how kids are," she said. "We thought he was weird because he smiled all the time."

But the getaway weekends he held for boys in his Du Page County parishes were welcomed by parents who were unaware that the boys there would be offered beer and pornography, the parishioners said.

The allegations swirling around Gibbs are so intertwined with the deepest religious and personal parts of people's lives that most interviewed for this article asked that their names not be used.

Many, like Japlon, share an outrage that the church might have ignored its responsibility to take tighter control over a priest so embroiled in serious accusations.

"I feel like the diocese has known about this the whole time and hasn't done anything about it," Japlon said.

According to Aeschliman and several parishioners, one mother who claimed her boy had been abused by Gibbs wrote Bishop Joseph Imesch of the Joliet diocese in 1980 to complain that Gibbs was still active in the priesthood.

In fact, Gibbs had been put in charge of altar boys at St. Joseph's.

"The sum and substance of the letters were hot," said Aeschliman, who characterized the letters this way: "You told me you were not going to allow this man around kids again, and now I find that he's around kids again."

"The (bishop's) answer was that the police didn't choose to file charges, and that's that," he said.

According to the timetable laid out in the suit, the alleged attacks on Dittrich began after Imesch responded to the woman's letters.

The Joliet diocese declined to comment for this article. Gibbs has been placed on administrative leave and has been sent to a therapeutic center.

Gibbs, 48, has served in eight parishes since he was ordained in 1973. Some of his longer assignments were at St. James the Apostle in Glen Ellyn from 1973 to 1977 and Christ the King from 1977 to 1980.

In his most recent assignments, he was a priest to college students, heading campus ministries at Elmhurst College, Joliet Junior College and North Central College in Naperville.

One former altar boy recalled his cabin getaway as a fun experience, in part, he said, because the priest let the boys drink beer.

"I remember that the guys who had been up there before teased us that we would have to go through some big initiation," he said. "But nothing ever happened."

Georgantis, an investigator hired by Aeschliman, said she found some 50 boys and men who said they were nude in the presence of the priest, were shown pornography or were physically abused.

"None of the victims came to me; I found them," she said. "Some of them are professional men now. I would sit in their offices and start asking questions.

Looks of shock would come across their faces, tears would be in their eyes. Some of them shook visibly when they described what happened."


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