Imesch Defends Decisions
Joliet Bishop Says Dallas Reforms Already in Place Here

By Ted Slowik
The Herald News
June 19, 2002

JOLIET — Most of the reforms that U.S. bishops endorsed in response to widespread claims that priests sexually abused minors already are in place in the Catholic Diocese of Joliet, Bishop Joseph Imesch said Tuesday.

Since 1992, the diocese has had a review board that evaluates claims of misconduct and determines a priest's fitness for ministry. The diocese is sharing information with civil authorities and committed to a policy of openness, Imesch said.

Imesch said he would honor recommendations made by the local review board, and that he believed eight priests he recently suspended would not return to public ministries.

"I look upon them as being deliberative," Imesch said of the seven-member review board. "I will do what they say."

During a 30-minute telephone interview, the leader of more than 600,000 Catholics dispelled reports that his diocese was secretive about priests who abused.

"I did not know" about priests who engaged in inappropriate behavior until people stepped forward to make claims, Imesch said. Once claims were made, Imesch said he acted swiftly to remove priests from parishes and sent them for counseling.

"At the time, that's what I thought we were supposed to do with priests who had abused, take them out of public ministry," the bishop said.

As administrator of the Catholic school system, Imesch would have been required to report any suspicions of sexual abuse to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, regardless of whether victims or their families wanted to go to police. Did Imesch comply with the requirement that he report suspected abuse to authorities when he removed priests from public ministries?

"It's not taken for granted that a priest was working in a school," Imesch said. Some cases were highly publicized at the time of a priest's removal, and Imesch blamed police and prosecutors for not pursuing claims of abuse.

"The knowledge was out there," he said.

Just this month, the Illinois law was expanded to include clergy as mandatory reporters of sexual abuse allegations.

When asked why priests removed from public ministries were never charged with crimes, Imesch said, "I have no idea."

Nearly all reports about Joliet Diocese priests accused of sexual misconduct involve incidents that happened before 1990. None of the priests removed as hospital chaplains or from other restricted ministries has faced any recent claim of abuse, Imesch pointed out.

Imesch insists that he informed bishops in St. Louis and Santa Rosa, Calif., about claims of misconduct by Joliet priests who transferred to those dioceses, despite those dioceses' claims that they were not aware of a priest's past. Those dioceses must have known why priests were serving in restricted ministries, Imesch said.

The Joliet bishop has said he verbally told the late St. Louis Archbishop John May about two priests who were chaplains at St. Louis-area hospitals.

"In every instance, the hospitals knew about the priest, and in one case, they want him back as chaplain. The previous bishops had the information. I will argue St. Louis until I die. I would never send a priest to another diocese without informing them," Imesch said.

The previous Santa Rosa bishop, G. Patrick Ziemann, resigned after being accused of sexual misconduct with a priest.

Imesch said he did not know how many people have said they were sexually abused by priests in his diocese, only that a number of people have stepped forward in recent weeks to report claims for the first time. Imesch said he met with one survivor of abuse who told the bishop that seeing the priest's name in print dredged up painful memories of the experience. He criticized news coverage of the Joliet Diocese, calling it unbalanced.

"People who know me know I would not do the things I'm accused of doing," he said, responding to reports that he reassigned suspected abusers to parish ministries and covered up claims to protect priests.

Last week's meetings

For months, Imesch refused requests from reporters to discuss claims of sexual abuse by Joliet priests and rarely responded to specific allegations. Imesch said people advised him to not comment on the scandal.

The bishop said he did not know how much the diocese has paid to settle claims of sexual abuse and in legal fees, or to provide counseling for victims.

"We're looking into that. That issue did not come up in Dallas," during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' meeting last week, he said. Some bishops, like conference chairman Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, have reported information about settlements paid by their dioceses.

A Will County judge is expected to rule today whether court documents pertaining to sexual abuse allegations in the Joliet Diocese will be unsealed.

Imesch, who turns 71 on Thursday, said bishops came away from the Dallas meeting with questions about how to implement the policies, which require approval by the Vatican to become binding.

"I think bishops are going to feel their way carefully. There seems to be a lot of gray areas. I think the commitment (to reform) is there," he said.


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