Imesch Urges Some Leniency
One-Time Offenders Could Remain Clergy

The Herald News
June 11, 2002

JOLIET — The leader of the Joliet Diocese believes priests who have had only one sexual abuse incident happening many years ago should be allowed to remain in the clergy.

As he prepared to leave for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas this week, Bishop Joseph Imesch said he believes it is unfair to take away the opportunity to perform Holy Communion for a priest who may have committed an act of a sexual abuse 35 or 40 years ago.

Instead, Imesch said he would like to see bishops agree this week that a priest who has committed abuse only once and many years ago be put on administrative leave.

If that were the case, Imesch said, the person may still be a priest and able to say Mass by themselves every morning, he said. They might be retired, or still have some type of job away from young people.

"I know some people might not like that because there still would be some liability," Imesch said. "But I think telling a person who had a problem 35 or 40 years ago that he is no longer a priest, that he no longer can perform the Eucharist, I just think that's unfair."

Cardinal Francis George, leader of the Archdiocese of Chicago, said Monday any plan to deal with sexually abusive priests should also contain strict policies governing bishops who fail to act on cases within their dioceses.

Leaders' dilemma

The dilemma now facing church leaders is how they should penalize priests who sexually abused victims years ago, George said.

While it may be possible to reassign a priest who has seemingly repented, the policy probably will call for removal, George said.

"That is where I think we are going to go," George said. "And I can live with that, provided that the bishops take the same responsibilities and it doesn't look as if we're just setting the priests up as the perpetrators here."

George is scheduled to arrive in Dallas late today for the conference. During the conference, the nation's bishops are expected to agree on a policy for dealing with sexually abusive priests.

In April, the nation's Catholic bishops headed to Rome, where they met at the Vatican for a summit on the scandal that has rocked the church. After the bishops met, they agreed to finish a plan when they meet this month.

That final policy should come this week, George said. Even though the proposal would ultimately require consent of church officials in Rome, George said bishops here could still institute the plan and carry it out if needed.

George also reacted to the thousands of people — mostly Catholic — who turned up last month at 38 different locations throughout the diocese to weigh in on the matter.

Currently, the Chicago Archdiocese already follows many of the guidelines recommended by laity, George said.

Local church leaders heard from about 3,000 respondents — either at a forum, by mail or the Internet, George said. Thousands more attended the forums held on the issue. Most favored removing abusive priests from the priesthood.

"There's a lot of justified anger around this issue," George said.

First draft

In a written statement regarding the first draft proposal, Bishop Thomas Doran of the Rockford Diocese said:

"My purpose is to give our people the assurance that we are doing all that can be done to protect their children from abuse by any adult connected with the diocese, be they lay, religious or clergy. That is our responsibility, and we will not shirk from our responsibility."

Owen Phelps, Rockford Diocese spokesman, said Rockford already has a no-strikes policy. That is, if any priest was found guilty of sexual misconduct with minors, he would not be assigned to a parish or ministry where they have access to young people.

Imesch also thought it was unfair that the diocese had to remove the Rev. John F. Barrett from Mary Queen of Heaven parish in Elmhurst six weeks ago for an allegation that he was involved in a sex abuse case 34 years ago in Clarendon Hills.

Barrett, who maintained his innocence throughout, was reinstated by the diocese Saturday.

"He should never have been removed," Imesch said of Barrett. "But we had no choice. If there is an allegation, and we don't remove him, the media asks why. They want his skin."

All three of the Joliet Diocese bishops are attending the conference in Dallas.

Herald News City Editor Nick Reiher, Aurora Beacon News reporter Steve Lord and the Associated Press contributed to this report.


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