The clergy sex abuse scandal didn’t chase Bishop Joseph Imesch out of the Joliet diocese.
The 74-year-old bishop declined Tuesday to offer a strong defense of his handling of abuse claims during his resignation speech.
“I’m comfortable with what I tried to do. Not always the best,” he said. “I’m comfortable meeting with the Lord, when that time comes.”
On June 27, Imesch will turn the diocese over to Bishop J. Peter Sartain, who has run the Diocese of Little Rock in Arkansas for the past six years.
Sartain is taking over a diocese facing more than 120 clergy abuse allegations — and at least 13 related lawsuits.
I covered religion for four years as a reporter, and I was raised a Roman Catholic. As such, I knew many, many good priests, guys who’d do anything for you, guys who were the last thing standing between their neighborhoods and gang warfare, guys who were more angry than anybody that the high standards to which they held themselves were not the same standards to which their leaders were subjected.
I was a part of the team of people who brought this to light:
The very first year Imesch arrived in Joliet, one of his priests was questioned by the DuPage County sheriff’s police. Parents at the Rev. Lawrence Gibbs’ Lombard parish complained to Imesch about Gibbs’ inappropriate behavior with their sons, but Imesch dismissed their concerns and transferred Gibbs to another parish without telling his new parishioners about the accusations. Gibbs was later accused of molesting numerous altar boys at a cabin in the north suburbs.
The Rev. Fred Lenczycki, now serving a prison sentence for child sexual abuse, was transferred to various parishes and eventually to California, where his new pastor was told only that Lenczycki had been unjustly accused of abuse. It took authorities decades to catch up with the priest.
However, the most egregious example of Imesch’s disregard for his parishioners was the case of the Rev. Gary Berthiaume. Berthiaume had served along with Imesch in the Archdiocese of Detroit, and the priest had been convicted of child sexual abuse and served time in prison. In 1987, after being exposed as a molester at yet another parish, Berthiaume asked Imesch to find him a place in Joliet.
Imesch installed the convicted sex offender at a west suburban hospital where Berthiaume worked as a chaplain. Berthiaume also began assisting at Masses, including children’s Masses, at a nearby parish. The pastor there said he wasn’t told of Berthiaume’s past until well after the priest’s appointment — and then only by Berthiaume himself.
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When his actions were exposed, first by this newspaper and then by prosecutors and attorneys, Imesch’s charming faade fell away, revealing a man concerned with nothing so much as his own image and that of his priests.
“How long should you go on hounding him?” Imesch demanded when questioned about Berthiaume. “Let him be in peace.”
To one worried mother, Imesch wrote, “In your letter, you say sexual abuse by a priest permanently damages the person abused. I wonder what the basis for that statement is.”
Unsealed court documents revealed a bishop who laughed at victims’ attorneys and sicced his own attack-dog lawyer, James Byrne, on those abused by his priests. Transcript after transcript showed Byrne badgering victims, asking them to admit to being homosexual, liars, drug addicts, cons.
That he should have been allowed to resign, that he and Cardinal Law and all the others who protected predators at immesurable cost to their congregations get to live out the rest of their cancerous days in comfort and relative wealth, is a travesty and an insult to all those they so horribly wronged.
Most Catholics I know were savvy enough to realize that the sex abuse scandal was not about sex abuse, a problem well known in every sector of society. It wasn’t about the priests who, after all, were sick themselves. It was about those in power who, soberly and while of sound mind, hid them, promoted them, made excuses for them, deceived their hardworking congregations and made a mockery of the faith.
At his news conference,
Asked how he felt when he found out Pope Benedict XVI had accepted his resignation early this month, Imesch lifted his hands to the sky.
“Free at last, God Almighty, free at last,” he said.
There are no words.