Shadow over Funding Drive
Catholic Appeal: Diocese Officials Face Challenge on Past Abuse Cases

By Ted Slowik
The Herald News
April 10, 2002

JOLIET — Questions about whether Joliet Diocese officials should disclose information about sexual abuse of minors by priests are surfacing just as the Catholic diocese kicks off its annual fund-raising appeal.

Whether publicity about past sex abuse cases will affect local fund-raising efforts remains to be seen. But in other dioceses, including Boston and New York, proponents of disclosure have used the threat of a "boycott" to pressure church officials into sharing information about priests with authorities.

Joliet attorney Keith Aeschliman is asking a Will County judge to unseal documents that contain information about 17 priests. Judge Herman Haase ordered the files sealed when the diocese settled the civil lawsuits with the families of victims years ago. The Diocese of Joliet is resisting disclosure of information about priests accused of sexual misconduct.

"I've heard of (these cases) before," Haase said Tuesday during a brief hearing on the issue. The hearing was continued to May 6 to give the diocese time to respond.

Aeschliman contends that Bishop Joseph Imesch, leader of the Joliet Diocese, knew of past allegations of abuse against some priests, yet allowed them to continue serving. Aeschliman wants Imesch to share that information with authorities.

"Why is he reluctant to do the same thing that a number of other dioceses are doing?" Aeschliman asked.

A representative of the Will County state's attorney's office attended the hearing, saying she was present merely to observe the proceedings. Aeschliman said the sealed documents contain information that could lead to criminal charges against some individuals. In every case settled, the victims' families have had to sign confidentiality agreements, he said.

Attempts to reach Imesch for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful. Imesch has said that just because someone accuses a priest of abuse in a civil lawsuit doesn't mean that individual is guilty.

Haase ordered the amounts the diocese paid to settle the past cases be sealed. In one case, the diocese settled with a victim's family for $450,000, then sued its insurance company in 1997 to collect reimbursement.

On Sunday, the Joliet Diocese announced it was hoping to raise $6.36 million during its annual appeal, or 3 percent more than last year. The diocese serves more than 600,000 Catholics in 132 parishes in seven counties, ranging from heavily populated DuPage County to rural Iroquois and Ford counties.

Money raised is used to fund the ministries and operations of the diocese, not to settle lawsuits, said Kevin Delabre, director of the diocese's development office.

"It's entirely possible that (the clergy abuse scandal) could affect (this year's campaign). My hope is that it does not," Delabre said.

A recent nationwide survey reported that less than 10 percent of Catholics would donate less to the church because of revelations about abuse and how officials responded to the issue.

During last year's appeal, more than $1 million raised was given to Joliet-based Catholic Charities, which provides counseling, shelter and other programs to the homeless and other needy individuals and groups. Catholic Charities is the nation's largest privately funded provider of social services. The local chapter has an annual budget of about $15.5 million, said Kathleen McGowen, executive director.

"We use that money (donated by the diocese) to fill in the gaps to cover what we don't get from United Way or elsewhere," McGowen said. Without the diocese's contribution, the agency would have to cut back on services, she said. "(Donors) aren't giving money to priests — they're giving it to their neighbors," Delabre said.

Aeschliman represented Joseph Dittrich in a 1993 civil lawsuit that alleged the Lockport youth was sexually abused by the Rev. Lawrence Gibbs between 1980 and 1987. Gibbs has since left the priesthood, but was never convicted of a crime and does not have to register as a sex offender.

Another attorney, Joseph Klest, represented the families of other victims allegedly abused by priests working in the Joliet diocese. On Tuesday, Klest said he was dismayed that Imesch this week expressed sympathy for the Rev. Gary Berthiaume, who was relieved of his duties as chaplain Saturday by Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove. Berthiaume was convicted of abusing a 12-year-old altar boy in 1978; Imesch was pastor of the parish where Berthiaume was assigned at the time.

"Where's the concern and compassion for the victims?" Klest asked.

After serving a prison term, Berthiaume later served at a parish in the Cleveland Catholic Diocese. On Monday, that diocese suspended Berthiaume and eight other priests, and also released the names of 12 other priests no longer in active ministry because of allegations in the past of abuse of minors.

There are renewed calls for Imesch to do the same.

"The Diocese of Joliet has been the most secretive and least willing to divulge information about problems with priests," Klest said. "They've done everything possible to keep their findings secret."

Ted Slowik can be reached at (815) 729-6053 or via e-mail at


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