Joliet bishop accused of mishandling abuse cases

Thursday, May 16, 2002

JOLIET, Ill. (AP) -- The Catholic bishop who runs the Joliet Diocese has transferred at least four priests accused of sexually abusing children without warning their new parishes and quietly accepted into the diocese a priest convicted of child molesting who had been prescribed a drug to curb his sex drive, the Chicago Tribune reported Thursday.

Court records and interviews with victims, church officials and attorneys with access to depositions show Bishop Joseph Imesch ignored parents' concerns and refused to cooperate with authorities investigating abuse charges against priests, the newspaper said.

As anguished parents turned to Imesch with concerns about sexually aggressive priests, the bishop defended the priests by saying they were cured in therapy and were fit to serve parishes with children, according to court records, interviews and parents' letters.

Imesch's alleged mishandling of abuse allegations is similar to stories told about other embattled U.S. bishops. Under pressure from parents and parishioners to adopt a no-tolerance policy for priests who molest children, U.S. bishops plan to gather in June to discuss a national policy for dealing with sexual abuse complaints against priests.

Under pressure in Joliet, a diocese of about 120 parishes, Imesch reversed course last month and gave state prosecutors church records on 16 priests accused of molesting kids. He also removed 10 priests.

Within a year of his installment as bishop in 1979, Imesch was confronted with allegations by a dozen boys that the Rev. Lawrence Gibbs gave them alcohol and told them to strip so he could watch them run around naked during weekends at a cabin in Wonder Lake.

John Rotunno, then an investigator for DuPage County prosecutors, said the diocese moved Gibbs to another parish during the investigation.

"I went to the rectory to pick him up, and they said he had been moved and they would not give me one iota of information about him," Rotunno said. The investigation ended and no charges were filed.

Meanwhile, worried parents wrote Imesch about the allegations.

"We are concerned that he is in another parish and will probably be working with young boys," a mother and father wrote in July 1980.

Imesch wrote back in August, telling them, "I have spoken with civil authorities involved and have been assured that they were unable to uncover any evidence that any criminal activity took place. I trust their judgment in this matter and repeat what while I do not condone what has occurred, I also do not find it serious enough to withhold an assignment from Father Gibbs."

Rotunno said Imesch misrepresented what investigators had found. The bishop sent Gibbs to a Lockport parish where fresh abuse allegations surfaced 13 years later, according to a civil lawsuit. The diocese settled that case for an undisclosed sum and Gibbs is no longer a priest.

"Bishop Imesch only paid lip service to us," said the mother of one 14-year old boy who had been on one of Gibbs' cabin trips.

A police detective and the father of a 14-year old girl molested by the Rev. Edward Stefanich in the mid-1980s both told similar stories about Imesch being uncooperative. Stefanich ultimately pleaded guilty to criminal sexual abuse and left the priesthood.

"We went to the church, and they acted like nothing was wrong," the girl's father said. "My wife wrote a letter to Imesch, and he never responded to it. Nobody ever said they were sorry. They destroyed our religion."

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