Joliet Bishop Rejects Notion of Cover-Up
Imesch Says He Didn't Move Accused Priests around to Avoid Scandal

By Charles B. Pelkie
The Herald News
May 22, 2002

COAL CITY — Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Imesch on Tuesday night categorically denied he shuffled priests from parish to parish to cover up accusations of sexual misconduct involving children.

"That has not happened in the Diocese of Joliet," Imesch said as he stood outside a meeting hall at Coal City's Assumption Catholic Church.

The bishop also challenged assertions in published reports that he has refused to cooperate with law enforcement officials investigating allegations of sexual abuse involving priests from the Joliet Diocese over the years.

And he insisted that his sole regret is his handling of a case of sexual misconduct involving the Rev. Lawrence M. Gibbs, who was the focus of civil lawsuits that alleged he abused a young man in the 1980s while the priest was serving at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lockport and in the late 1970s while he was stationed at Christ the King Catholic Church in Lombard.

Imesch acknowledged that there were "smoke signals" in the Gibbs case. But he said that the DuPage County state's attorney investigated the allegations from Christ the King and found no basis for criminal charges. Imesch said he later ordered a psychiatric evaluation of the priest that revealed Gibbs had engaged in "juvenile horseplay," but not sexual misconduct.

The bishop conceded that the choices he made might not always have been the wisest. But he said he never deliberately did the wrong thing. "In my heart of hearts, I'm at peace with the decisions I made," he said.

Imesch delivered his comments after a two-hour session during which he addressed concerns by parishioners at Assumption Church over the loss of their pastor this weekend. The bishop removed the Rev. Donald O'Connor from his position after allegations surfaced that the priest had sexually abused a boy from the Coal City parish 30 years ago.

O'Connor, 65, is the 11th priest with ties to the Joliet Diocese to either resign or be suspended from ministry because of allegations of sexual abuse. The diocese last month turned over documents containing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests to prosecutors in both Will and DuPage counties. A Will County judge next month is scheduled to rule on whether the public should be given access to those files.

Assumption Church parishioners filed in quietly to a meeting that was closed to the media.

"They're hurting," Imesch said of the congregation. "They loved this man. He was compassionate, caring. He was a father figure to all of them."

Imesch said he removed the priest shortly after the 30-year-old allegations of abuse surfaced last week.

The decision stunned the congregation of 1,200 families in this small Grundy County town.

Bob Bianchetta said O'Connor arranged a meeting of the parish council Saturday afternoon before the 5 p.m. Mass. Bianchetta, who is the council president, said Auxiliary Bishop Roger Kaffer informed the council during that meeting and then made the allegations public at the afternoon service.

"We were cold-cocked," Bianchetta said. "We didn't have any idea what (the meeting) was about."

Bianchetta said the parish is still coming to grips with the allegations.

Parishioners leaving the meeting expressed compassion for the man they know as Father O. "He's one of the finest priests we've ever had," said 80-year-old Joe Vilt, a lifelong Coal City resident and parishioner. "The Good Book says that the man who never sinned can throw the first stone."

Dominic Pantaleone, who served as an altar boy with O'Connor at 6 a.m. Masses 35 years ago, said he never witnessed a hint of impropriety in his dealings with the priest.

He said the crowd's mood during Tuesday's session with the bishop ranged from anger to frustration to compassion. But he believes the parish will survive the crisis.

"We're just going to have to let our faith lead us down the road again and rebuild our parish from the bottom up," he said.


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