Diocese Hands over Papers
Sex-Abuse Lawsuit: Prosecutors in 2 Counties Get Sealed Documents

By Joe Hosey
The Herald News
April 26, 2002

The Diocese of Joliet turned sealed documents over to prosecutors from two counties after a local attorney argued to open the files to the public.

Attorney Keith Aeschliman submitted a motion April 4 that argued court-sealed documents connected to a lawsuit he filed in 1993 could prevent future acts of sexual abuse by diocesan priests.

Late Wednesday, the attorney for the diocese, James Byrne, filed his own motion offering to turn over sealed documents containing allegations of sexual misconduct with minors from 1970 to 1995 and the personnel profile of a priest named in Aeschliman's earlier lawsuit.

According to a statement released by Sister Judith Davies, chancellor of the Joliet Diocese, "The decision to release the information is part of a plan of action being developed by the diocese to put an end to the tragedy of child sexual abuse by priests."

But Aeschliman viewed the surrender of the sealed documents to the offices of the two state's attorneys as "damage control."

"It's very clear what they're doing is trying to avoid any additional bad publicity," he said. "This is every attempt they can make that the public will have no knowledge of what part Bishop (Joseph) Imesch had in the transfer of these priests."

By turning over the records to prosecutors, Aeschliman contends, they still will be kept from the public and, "It's not going to allow them to chase the bishop."

"Nobody else but the state's attorney is going to know the bishop's involvement," Aeschliman said. "It's totally damage control, but it's masterfully done."

One of Aeschliman's associates appeared in court Thursday morning with Byrne for a hearing on the matter in front of Judge Herman Haase. The diocese's offer to release the sealed records was not broached.

Besides turning over the documents, the statement issued by the diocese said it has begun a thorough review of its policies and procedures for handling allegations of sexual misconduct.

"Among the steps under consideration is the formation of an independent advisory group to review diocesan policies on sexual misconduct," the statement said. "The group would include lay members such as child welfare professionals as well as at least one survivor or a parent of a survivor of child sexual abuse."

In the statement, Imesch acknowledged that the diocese realizes more past allegations may come to light.

"We know this may cause more pain for victims and their families, as well as for our parishioners," the bishop said. "For that we are profoundly sorry. But we truly believe that the only way we can heal and move forward is to thoroughly review the past and be as open as we can, while protecting the privacy of victims who choose confidentiality."

Criminal sex charges can be filed for up to 10 years after a victim reaches the age of 18, provided the abuse was reported to police before he or she reached the age of 21, according to statute.

But Aeschliman said his main reason for filing the motion to open the records was to prevent further victimization by sexual abusers.

"My motivation is basically to find if there's guys who were out there molesting kids and they're still in parishes, that somebody has their eye on them and maybe they'll go to jail," he said.

Aeschliman had filed the motion in connection with a civil lawsuit alleging that the Rev. Lawrence M. Gibbs, while serving as a priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lockport, sexually abused Joseph Dittrich between 1980 and 1987. Dittrich was 22 when Aeschliman filed the lawsuit in 1993.

The complaint also referred to allegations of abuse against Gibbs while he was serving as a priest at Christ the King Catholic Church in Lombard.

In 1994, Aeschliman filed another two suits on behalf of a pair of 29-year-old men who claimed they were molested by the priest at his Lake County cabin in the late 1970s. The two men reportedly attended the Lombard church at that time.

All three lawsuits accused Imesch of failing to report the alleged sexual abuse to the proper authorities. The lawsuits maintain the bishop "knew or should have known" of the alleged sexual misconduct, as well as taken steps to keep Gibbs away from children.

The three suits were settled. But the terms, along with many depositions and other documents filed in the case, were impounded by the court.

Aeschliman said the release of these documents to prosecutors in Will and DuPage "was the purpose of this motion all along."

"I consider it a partial victory," he said. "Not that there's a victor or winner or loser."


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