- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 30, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) - Lawyers on Wednesday released a deposition with a long-serving bishop and letters and thousands of files from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet - documents that they say show diocesan officials downplayed, dismissed and sometimes covered up sex abuse by priests.

In a 247-page deposition, Joseph L. Imesch, who was the Joliet bishop from 1979 to 2006, concedes under blistering questioning he sometimes allowed priests to stay on or transferred them as allegations they sexually abused children arose.

Taken as a whole, the documents paint a picture of a bishop who is consistently indecisive, at best, and diocese officials who seemed obsessed with ensuring the accusations couldn’t sully their reputations, Jeff Anderson, whose law firm released the files on 16 priests, told reporters.

“The documents show a long-term pattern and long-term choices by … bishops and their superiors to protect themselves and their priests at the peril of children,” Anderson said.

In the 2005 deposition with Imesch, he was asked about Edward Stefanich, a longtime priest in the diocese who was eventually arrested in 1987 and later pleaded guilty to criminal sexual abuse.

Asked if he considered taking complaints about Stefanich to police years earlier - potentially stopping Stefanich before he abused others - Imesch said he had not.

“I would not do that,” he says in the deposition. “There is no hard evidence this is happening. And I am not going to go say, ‘Hey, police. Go check on my priest.’”

The Joliet-based diocese, which serves nearly 655,000 parishioners over a large area west and southwest of Chicago, would not deal with abuse allegations the same way now, diocesan spokesman Edward Flavin said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

“Abuse allegations are handled far better today,” he said. “Any and all allegations are fully reported to public authorities. … We take it very seriously.”

Imesch is retired and still living within the diocese, but not granting interviews, Flavin added.

The release of the deposition, letters and files Wednesday is the latest example of a U.S. diocese turning over documents - that are then opened to the public, as in this case, by attorneys. Earlier this year, the Archdiocese of Chicago released 6,000 pages of documents on about 30 priests.

The content of the Joliet documents is consistent with what’s been revealed in similar such releases, Anderson said.

“I’m sad to say, the pattern is the same,” he said. “(Diocese officials) follow a protocol that allows them to avoid scandal.” That includes erring on the side of keeping things secret whenever possible, he said.

In the deposition, Imesch acknowledges the diocese had a secret archive that only he and one person designated by him had access to, but he denied using it to bury complaints of sexual misconduct by priests.

But pressed by a plaintiff’s lawyer in the deposition - which was taken as part of a civil lawsuit 10 years ago - he says investigations of abuse by the diocese before the early 2000s often consisted of him asking the priest if the allegations were true or not. He says he didn’t go through files when he became bishop in 1979 to determine which priests were the subjects of complaints.

Dozens of the released documents refer to Frederick Lenczycki, who was convicted in 2004 of abusing three boys. Complaints from parishioners and letters to and from the priest and the diocese indicate multiple allegations of abuse going back 30 years.

In one 1985 letter to Imesch, Lenczycki writes he cried “like a baby - like I did in your arms” after mentioning to someone what he’d done.

Asked why he chose to let Lenczycki and other priests continue in the ministry after reports emerged of child abuse that the bishop himself deemed credible, Imesch several times notes they had received therapy.

On another occasion, Imesch transferred a priest to a new parish after complaints he had played inappropriate games with children in the nude, according to the deposition.

“The psychiatrist said it was OK, so I put him in (another) parish,” Imesch says in the deposition. “It was not considered a crime or a criminal activity, so there was no reason for me not to transfer him.”

A lawyer in the deposition pressed Imesch about what level of proof and what level of alleged abuse he needed to deem a priest unfit for the priesthood.

Imesch was asked about his resistance to remove Stefanich as suspicions swirled around him in the years before his arrest and even after police suggested the priest was a possible suspect in a murder.

“Suspicion is not enough to remove someone. That’s a police job to investigate,” he responds.

Those who questioned him also note in the deposition that the bishop sent a note to Stefanich as police scrutiny intensified on the abuse allegations against the priest.

Asked if he ever offered his “personal assurances and prayers and whatever help might be needed” to Stefanich’s victim, Imesch says he tried to reach out to her but “never had a chance to meet her.”

___

Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mtarm .

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