Bishops' Meeting Seen As Crucial
Sexual Misconduct: Church Policy Expected to Be Drafted
By Ted Slowik
The Herald News
May 16, 2002
JOLIET — When U.S. Catholic bishops meet next month, their main objective will be to refine a policy on how dioceses should deal with priests accused of sexual misconduct.
But there's a lot more riding on the outcome of June 13-15 meeting in Dallas, namely whether bishops can regain the trust of lay Catholics and others who are dissatisfied by how church leaders have responded to sexual abuse claims over the years.
Four weeks before the Dallas meeting, debate about the issue reflects myriad views on the topic. Survivors' groups hope bishops decide to remove anyone who ever engaged in sexual activity with a minor. Some church leaders say that turning abusive priests loose upon society could be more harmful than keeping them in limited, supervised ministries.
Some see the Dallas meeting as a chance for reforms that could lead to increased involvement by laity in the church. Some view it as an opportunity to expose homosexuality in the priesthood and restore morality to the faith. Some aren't expecting much in the way of concrete change, but plenty of rhetoric about how the media has promulgated the crisis.
"They're going to have a pity party," said Is Dittrich, whose oldest son, Joseph, was sexually abused by a priest who served in the Joliet Diocese. "Where's (the bishops') motivation to stand up and say, 'We've all done so much damage to children?' I can't see them actually doing anything different."
Recent polls show that about 75 percent of Catholics favor a zero-tolerance policy toward abusive priests, and a similar percentage disapprove of how church leaders have handled sexual abuse cases. But some question how much attention bishops pay to polls.
"They just don't get it," said New Lenox resident Karl Maurer, vice president of Catholic Citizens of Illinois. The thousand-member conservative group plans to send representatives to the Dallas meeting to raise awareness about "rampant homosexuality activity in the priesthood that has gone unchecked for decades," Maurer said.
"The Catholic Church is not a democracy, it's a hierarchy. That's good because the whims of the Catholic population are not allowed to change fundamental beliefs, but it's bad when the hierarchy becomes so misdirected and doesn't realize the graveness of its misdirection," Maurer said.
Statements by some church leaders indicate they do grasp the seriousness of the crisis. After U.S. cardinals were summoned to meet with Pope John Paul II in Rome last month, Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, talked of his concern about the large number of gay men in the priesthood.
"One of the difficulties we do face in seminary life or recruitment is made possible when there does exist a homosexual atmosphere or dynamic that makes heterosexual men think twice" about entering, because they fear harassment. "It is an ongoing struggle to make sure the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men," Gregory said.
Some experts endorsed by the church seem to hold contradictory views. The Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, a psychologist and consultant to the bishops' ad hoc committee on child sexual abuse, wrote in the Catholic periodical America on April 25 that many priests who sexually abuse adolescent males are emotionally stuck in adolescence themselves.
"The problem is not that the church ordains homosexuals. Rather, it is that the church has ordained regressed or stunted homosexuals. The solution, then, is not to ban all homosexuals from ordained ministry, but rather to screen out regressed homosexuals before ordination," Rossetti wrote.
Failure to screen Lawrence M. Gibbs from the priesthood resulted in an unknown number of abuse victims in the Joliet Diocese. In 1971, when Gibbs was studying to be a priest, a clinical psychologist who examined him wrote that the seminarian exhibited signs of paranoia and schizophrenia, according to documents from Gibbs' personnel file, which were obtained by The Herald News.
Although Gibbs tried to appear brilliant, she wrote, he made "miserable errors which cause him even further anxiety because he looks foolish to those within his religion." She cautioned that Gibbs could have a breakdown if placed under too much stress.
"I fear for him, if at this time of life, and after the amount of investment the patient has made in his training, that, should he be asked to leave the priesthood, or should he not be ordained, this is the stress that might bring on a psychotic episode," the doctor wrote.
In 1978, Lombard police investigated allegations that Gibbs sexually abused boys at Christ the King parish, but did not arrest him because of insufficient evidence. Gibbs was removed from the parish and underwent counseling.
In 1980, after Imesch assigned Gibbs to St. Joseph's parish in Lockport, the bishop wrote letters to Lombard parents concerned that the priest might abuse again.
"If there were any doubt in my mind about Father Gibbs' ability to minister to any group, I would never have given him his present assignment. I am convinced that he has been and will be a very effective minister and I am hopeful that the professional help that he is receiving will benefit him," Imesch wrote.
By 1982, Gibbs was giving alcohol to 11-year-old Joseph Dittrich and sexually abusing the Lockport boy, according to court documents.
In 1993, when he was 22 and undergoing treatment for alcoholism, Dittrich sued the diocese. He later settled out of court.
"I'm extremely proud of my son," his mother said in a telephone interview Tuesday evening. "He was the only one who used his name in a lawsuit (against the Joliet Diocese in a sex abuse case). It had much more impact with a name attached than being an anonymous suit."
Since Dittrich's suit was settled nearly a decade ago, Will County Judge Herman Haase has ordered documents related to sex abuse cases in the Joliet Diocese to be sealed from public view. Dittrich recently allowed his attorney, Keith Aeschliman, to ask Haase to rescind the order, a move the diocese is fighting. Haase is scheduled to consider the motion on June 6.
Gibbs left the priesthood and later married. Dittrich is married and lives on the East Coast. Dittrich's mother is encouraged by recent publicity about sexual abuse in the Catholic church, but believes U.S. bishops will only adopt real change if ordered to by the pope.
"If they're still pledging allegiance to the hierarchy, they're still in denial. There's no way they're going to listen to me or anyone else," she said.
Ted Slowik can be reached at (815) 729-6053 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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