Laity Sends Message to Bishop
Before Leaving for Dallas, Imesch Collected Plenty of Opinions on Sex Abuse

By Ted Slowik
The Herald News
June 13, 2002

Before Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch traveled Wednesday to Dallas to help craft policies for dealing with priests accused of sexual abuse, he fielded opinions from thousands of local Catholics about the crisis in the church.

More than 75 percent of the diocese's 192 parish councils responded to Imesch's request for comment, said Sister Judith Davies, diocese chancellor. Most councils met to answer a 14-point questionnaire that asked how bishops should respond to specific situations involving sexual misconduct.

Many laity were grateful for the chance to be heard.

"We want everything to be out in the open," said Shirley Grasty, parish council president at the Cathedral of St. Raymond. "We want the bishops to take a very strong stand against child abuse."

In recent weeks, Imesch has abandoned his former practice of trying to downplay the issue of sexual abuse in his diocese. The call for input from laity is just one example of how much has changed since April 12, when he began a letter to all parishes by saying, "Never in my life did I think that I would need to address once again the abuse of children by clergy."

Since early April, Imesch has removed nine priests and reinstated one, the Rev. John Barrett of Mary Queen of Heaven Parish in Elmhurst. Two other priests associated with the Joliet Diocese were suspended by their home dioceses.

Imesch gave civil authorities information about 16 priests suspected of abuse, though the diocese fought a local attorney's request to unseal court documents containing information about up to 30 priests. A judge is expected to rule on the case June 19.

The leader of more than 600,000 Catholics in seven counties also ordered a diocese committee to revamp a policy for handling sexual abuse allegations and announced the formation of an independent advisory group consisting of seven laypeople to review the policy.

"Depending on the outcome of Dallas, that will of course affect our policy," Davies said.

One of the 14 questions asked is whether the panel should recommend reinstating a priest who abused years ago but has faced no recent allegations.

"(Imesch) is saying a priest who passes a board can get back into the ministry, but now he's choosing who's on the board," said Kelly Klepec, parish council president at St. Mary's in Minooka.

Some, like Klepec, are unconvinced that Imesch's recent steps have made up for years of past practice.

"With his history of bad decisions, my fellow parishioners would like to see him step down," Klepek said.

Despite growing numbers of critics, Imesch has many staunch supporters, including several prominent Joliet residents who know Imesch for his likable, personable style.

"I've known him to be a person of impeccable integrity and the highest moral character," said Michael Hansen, chief executive of the company that owns the Joliet JackHammers baseball team. At Hansen's invitation, Imesch said a blessing and dedicated Silver Cross Field when the team played its inaugural game May 24.

Polls and surveys show that most Catholics are upset by how bishops have dealt with priests who engaged in inappropriate behavior, particularly those who transferred suspected molesters from parish to parish. The Dallas Morning News reported Wednesday that two-thirds of the 178 U.S. bishops have allowed priests accused of sexual abuse to keep working.

"What's pressing is the expectation of parishes and people that bishops are effective in administering this problem," said the Rev. Kevin Spiess, pastor of St. Alphonsus in Lemont and a 30-year faculty member at Lewis University in Romeoville. Spiess, who holds a doctorate from Harvard, helped draft the Archdiocese of Chicago's landmark policy for handling claims of sexual abuse.

Bishops relied on the advice of medical professionals who until about 15 years ago didn't understand that sexual disorders could be treated but not cured, Spiess said. This week, the bishops must communicate that their first concern is the fair treatment of abuse victims, followed by acknowledging the concerns of Catholics for the protection of children, Spiess said.

"The third concern is what to do about priests who maybe had a moral lapse 30 or 40 years ago," he said.

When the abuse scandal touched the Joliet Diocese two months ago with the removal of the Rev. Gary Berthiaume from his ministry as a hospital chaplain, Imesch defended the convicted child molester.

"It is very difficult for someone who has served 12 years as chaplain to have the (newspaper) ruin whatever is left of his life," Imesch told THE ASSOCIATED PRESS on April 8.

That's why some people have a hard time believing Imesch's more recent statements in which he apologized for past mistakes and expressed sympathy for those abused by priests. Some laity know a different side of Imesch, one that can be arrogant and accusatory. Klepec said parishioners at St. Mary's in Minooka told Imesch years ago about a priest who allegedly engaged in inappropriate conduct, but the bishop brushed aside their concerns.

"We don't want to be ignored anymore," Klepec said.

In the last decade, at least 26 priests in the Joliet Diocese were removed or resigned from ministries, charged with a crime or named a defendant in a civil lawsuit because of sexual misconduct allegations. And the diocese faces a spate of new civil lawsuits once the issue of unsealing court documents is resolved.

The numbers raise questions about the diocese's leadership. Were leaders, including Imesch and his predecessor, Bishop Romeo Blanchette, unable to control their priests?

Or worse, were leaders aware of problem priests and looked the other way? A 1999 civil lawsuit brought that accusation against former Springfield Bishop Daniel Ryan. Ryan resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations that same year.

Many Catholics want the bishops to accept responsibility for their roles in the crisis, and polls show a majority believe some church leaders should resign. After all, bishops could have more forcibly addressed the issue since the mid-1980s, but opted to maintain a climate of secrecy that was shattered only by independent investigations based on court records and survivors' accounts.

Spiess believes the bishops should devise a national policy that will withstand the test of time, though it should probably be reviewed every five or 10 years.

"Ten years represents a major leap. Ten years ago, we didn't have a president who had a (highly publicized) sexual relationship outside his marriage. Our children are much more aware of what's going on, and we're not as tolerant (of misconduct) anymore.

"The church will grow from this if (the bishops) do the right thing. We'll look back at this period and say it was a good time to deal with the larger issue of sexual misconduct with minors, in families and in society. The church is just one arena," he said.


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