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OPINION: Attorney general's report prompts recall of work to hold Joliet bishop accountable for child sex abuse

The SouthtownStar - 5/25/2023

May 25—This week's release of Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul's report on sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy in Illinois' six dioceses unleashed a flood of recollections from 20 years ago about how the issue affected people in the Joliet Diocese.

I was a reporter at a Joliet newspaper in 2002, when The Boston Globe unveiled how Catholic bishops shuffled child sex abusers between churches without warning parents or parishioners about their past conduct.

Nailing down detailed facts about childhood sexual abuse crimes was only part of the story. The real work was exposing how Catholic leaders covered up abuse through systematic delays, denials and deflections.

The six dioceses in Illinois had publicly listed just 103 substantiated child sex abusers before this week. The attorney general's investigation resulted in a 696-page report that revealed names of 451 Catholic clerics and religious brothers who abused at least 1,997 children.

"Decades of Catholic leadership decisions and policies have allowed known child sex abusers to hide, often in plain sight," Raoul wrote in an introductory message. "And because the statute of limitations has frequently expired, many survivors of child sex abuse at the hands of Catholic clerics will never see justice in a legal sense."

As The Globe's groundbreaking reporting in 2002 uncovered the Catholic Church's pattern of enabling abuse, I was among the first journalists to recognize the widespread implications of the newspaper's work and investigate whether local church leaders engaged in similar conduct.

I was aware of lawsuits and abrupt removals of priests from various parishes in Will, DuPage and the five other counties in the Joliet Diocese. I wrote "process" stories that showed evidence of similar conduct locally and questioned Joliet Diocese leaders about how they handled reports of abuse.

Late one Friday afternoon, an email landed in my inbox from a teacher who said he wanted to share with me his story of how a priest sexually assaulted him when he was a teen. That Sunday afternoon, I sat at the man's dining room table and listened as he described what happened.

I asked what evidence he might have to corroborate his story, and he produced love letters the priest had written to him when the priest was sent away to a treatment facility after he was caught sexually abusing another boy.

I spoke with the man's parents. They provided credible accounts about how their son's behavior drastically changed during the time the abuse occurred. The mother recounted how she confronted the late Bishop Joseph Imesch after she discovered the letters.

Imesch was sly and intimidating. He asked her for the letters. She described how she extended her arm across his desk and was about to surrender the evidence when, at the last moment, she pulled her arm back and decided to keep the originals and only allow him to make copies.

After I wrote about the man's experience, floodgates seemed to open. In the weeks that followed, Imesch removed more than a dozen priests from active ministries because of credible allegations of past abuse.

Imesch knew what these men had done and that they remained a threat, yet he allowed them to continue serving at parishes with schools where they had access to children.

The number of accused priests ticked higher as the months passed: 15, then 20, then 25. The attorney general's report contains information about 69 clerics affiliated with the Joliet Diocese who sexually abused children.

I listened as more than 50 individuals told me personal accounts. Most were men who experienced abuse, but some were mothers who told me what had happened to their boys.

I tracked down and confronted some accused priests and other religious leaders, including a former Catholic school principal who admitted to me that he had molested a boy, after a whistleblower former priest told me he caught him in the act.

People in Joliet called me "the priest guy." I became a sort of "horse whisperer" for survivors. Years later, after I left journalism and worked in public relations, I would still get calls from people who wanted to tell me their stories. I listened, of course, because it was the least I could do to ease their pain.

Many survivors wanted nothing to do with the church because they knew how the church would treat them if they reported the abuse. They didn't want to hire a lawyer and they didn't want to talk to police or other authorities. They may have also talked to a counselor or therapist, but they wanted someone else to know the truth, so they told me.

Many did not want their stories told for publication. I recall a conversation with a woman who said she was a single mother raising five boys. She was honored that the Rev. John Slown would visit her home and offer to tuck her boys into bed at night after she served dinner to her esteemed guest. She was living with the horrific realization, years later, that she had given a predator access to her sons.

"A priest in New Jersey informed the diocese of his 'grave' belief that Slown had sexually abused all five boys in a local family that once lived in the diocese and still received visits from Slown," according to the attorney general's report.

Imesch went to great lengths to protect his priests. I think he couldn't stand the thought of losing a foot soldier who was educated and trained at significant expense. I imagined Imesch telling predator priests he needed them to get back out there and do their jobs.

Imesch might have been angry with some of his predatory priests, but for the wrong reasons. He was angry they got caught and created scandals. He seemed to sincerely believe predators could be rehabilitated by spending time at an isolated resort-like center.

WGN-TV just produced an excellent three-part series, "Sanctuary of Sin," on such a facility. The investigation, reported by Larry Potash, will air in a one-hour special beginning at 7 p.m. Friday.

I believe Imesch knew early on how treatment centers were horribly ineffective. They were useful to the church only in that a bishop could say he did his best and that he thought he could safely reassign a child sex offender to another parish.

I think Imesch believed fear or shame would prevent an offender from abusing more children. But he also must have realized how weak many of his priests were when it came to temptations of the flesh. Many were incapable of rehabilitation.

Imesch often seemed to be driven by legal considerations as opposed to moral or ethical guidance. When I would ask why he didn't call police when he became aware of sex abuse, he would say the law didn't require it at the time.

The 2015 Oscar-winning film "Spotlight" showed how church lobbyists fought legislative efforts to hold organizations accountable. Statutes of limitations that restricted the ability of survivors to pursue justice were no accident. They were part of a deliberate campaign to thwart transparency.

One day in 2013, after I had been out of journalism and working in public relations for five years, I received a call from a Chicago Tribune reporter. A judge had just ordered the Joliet Diocese to release about 7,000 pages of documents related to sexual abuse of children.

"Ted," she told me. "Your name is all over these files."

Apparently I was an aggravation to Imesch and the diocese because of my relentless pursuit of truth and justice on behalf of survivors. After "Spotlight" came out, I was invited to speak at the 2016 Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests conference and recounted my role covering the issue.

Imesch died in 2015. He bullied people who were sexually abused as children and stood up for his priests who destroyed lives and families because they could not control their sexual urges. No organization should ever honor Imesch by naming an education award, lecture series, building or other facility after him.

The attorney general's report reminds us that Catholic bishops failed on a massive scale to protect children from sexual predators. Constant vigilance is needed to battle a culture of complacency.

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.


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