Doubts about Dallas
Sex Abuse Policy: Skepticism in Joliet, Resistance in Rome

By Ted Slowik
The Herald News
June 16, 2002

As Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch returns from the historic bishops' meeting in Dallas, he'll begin the process of implementing the reforms laid out in new policies for dealing with priests who sexually abused minors.

In coming weeks, Imesch will have to decide the fate of eight priests who were removed from their ministries since early April. And if Vatican authorities endorse the policy as adopted by U.S. bishops, Imesch or some other diocesan official will attempt to contact people who were abused by priests or other agents of the Catholic Diocese of Joliet.

"Each diocese/eparchy is to develop an outreach to every person who has been the victim of sexual abuse as a minor by anyone acting in the name of the church, whether the abuse was recent or occurred many years in the past," states the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

For some survivors of sexual abuse, the church's pledge to promote healing and reconciliation is too little, too late.

"The only way bishops will understand the magnitude of what they've caused is when one of them or a few of them spend a few years in jail," said 37-year-old Jimmy Komp, who sued the diocese in 1998. Komp says he was sexually abused by the late Rev. Richard Ruffalo, who was Komp's religion teacher at St. Mary's in Park Forest. Ruffalo, who died in 1997 at age 62, also served at the Cathedral of St. Raymond in Joliet.

No sooner had bishops approved the policies Friday when they found themselves criticized by groups representing survivors, laity and others for not spelling out punishments for bishops who shielded abusive priests.

"Everything is such a charade with the bishops," Komp said, echoing skepticism expressed by other survivors. "A lot of victims don't care what (bishops) think anymore."

Some family members of abuse victims are flat-out rejecting the church's offer of an olive branch. Is Dittrich's son Joseph sued the diocese in 1993, alleging the Rev. Larry Gibbs sexually abused him. Gibbs was defrocked, and Dittrich's suit is the basis for local attorney Keith Aeschliman's attempt to have a judge unseal court documents about abuse cases in the Joliet Diocese. A ruling is expected Wednesday.

"I would not meet with Imesch," Dittrich's mother said. "I'm sure that I would become physically ill, just as I did when I watched Keith relating on camera, 10 years ago, the details of what Gibbs had done to Joseph. I would not be willing to speak with anyone from the diocese."

Both Komp and Dittrich said the lasting, painful scars of sexual abuse have left them estranged from family members. Many survivors and victims feel that bishops cannot possibly solve the problem because through their own mismanagement, bishops are the problem.

Some local Catholics are disappointed with the results of the bishops' meeting.

"I think it was a waste of time. They should have zero-tolerance all the way," said Leo Miklos, on his way into Saturday evening Mass at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Joliet.

Fellow parishioner Bill McCleary said he would "wait and see" how well bishops implement the new policies.

"It's a step forward, but I think the bishops still have a credibility problem," he said.

Imesch will have help in implementing the charter, which calls for removing past, present and future offenders from public ministry. Men who are found to have abused could, however, remain priests, but not be permitted to celebrate Mass publicly, wear clerical garb or present themselves publicly as priests.

The charter calls for dioceses to create review boards consisting mainly of laypeople who will help bishops assess abuse allegations and fitness for ministry.

The Joliet Diocese review board recently determined that an allegation of abuse by the Rev. John Barrett was not credible. Imesch reinstated Barrett as pastor of Mary Queen of Heaven Parish in Elmhurst on June 8.

The charter contains wording designed to ensure due process for priests and protect them from false accusers.

"When the accusation has proved to be unfounded, every step possible will be taken to restore the good name of the priest or deacon," the charter states.

Imesch will have to decide what to do about eight other priests. The charter states that when an individual admits to abuse or the claim is substantiated, the priest can voluntarily ask to be defrocked or the bishop may pursue dismissal without the priest's consent.

Other articles in the charter would require dioceses to report all abuse allegations to civil authorities; develop communications policies that show a commitment to transparency and openness; and conduct background checks for all personnel who have contact with minors.

The charter states that when a cleric plans to switch dioceses, his current bishop will thoroughly review his record and provide the receiving bishop with an "accurate and complete" description of his background, including anything that would raise questions about his fitness for ministry.

The policies require Vatican approval to become binding, and there are signs that top church officials don't approve of the proposed restrictions and requirements. Last month, the dean of canon law at Pontifical Gregorian University wrote that bishops should avoid telling congregations that priests had sexually abused someone if the bishops believe the priests will not abuse again.


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