Files detail decades of abuse in Joliet Diocese

The Joliet Diocese readily admitted that David Rudofski was sexually abused during his first confession at St. Mary Catholic Church in Mokena. It offered him an in-person apology from the bishop and more than six times his annual salary in the hope of putting a quick, quiet end to yet another ugly incident involving a priest.

But Rudofski wanted more than money.

The south suburban electrician wanted the diocese to truly pay for its repeated and, oftentimes, willful mishandling of sexual abuse cases involving clergy — and he insisted on a currency far more precious to the church than money. He demanded that the diocese settle its debt by turning over the secret archives it maintained on abusive priests and making them available for public consumption.

"What was I supposed to do? Take the money and run?" Rudofski said. "How would that help anybody else? If people don't know how this was allowed to happen for decades, they can't prevent it from happening again."

The diocese, however, fought Rudofski's efforts for more than a year before agreeing to turn over the personnel files of 16 of the 34 priests with substantiated allegations against them. It also issued a news release adding his alleged abuser, the Rev. James Burnett, to its still-growing list of accused clergy.

The files, which Rudofski's attorney shared with the Tribune after redacting the names of other victims, contain more than 7,000 records detailing how the diocese purposefully shielded priests, misled parishioners and left children unprotected for more than a half-century. They also raise new questions about whether the church has been forthcoming about the number of local priests involved in the scandal and the percentage of clergy confronted with credible claims.

Though the Joliet Diocese's botched handling of pedophile priests has been well-documented in recent years, the records offer the most complete portrait of the ineptitude and indifference that greeted the allegations almost since the religious district's inception in 1948. The errors span more than six decades and involved three bishops, 91 places of worship and more than 100 victims.

Researchers and Roman Catholic Church officials have previously said that about 4 percent of priests nationally committed an act of sexual abuse against a minor between 1950 and 2002, with church officials claiming the rate of abusers within the priesthood is no different from that among other professions.

However, the files show that the Joliet Diocese — which includes parishes in DuPage, Ford, Grundy, Iroquois, Kankakee, Kendall and Will counties — had double or triple that percentage in the 1980s. In 1983, for example, more than 13 percent of priests serving in the diocese would later have credible abuse allegations leveled against them.

Reached at his home in New Lenox, retired Bishop Joseph Imesch, 81, said he didn't want to discuss details of the revelations in the documents.

"I'm not going to rehash all of this. I know what I did; I know what I should have done," he said, expressing frustration with the way news reports portrayed his conduct.

When a reporter informed him that a Tribune story was being prepared to report on the newly released documents, Imesch said, "Sure. Sex and the priests, let's blast it all over the place. Never let it go."

The records, some of which are stamped as being from the bishops' "secret archives," include letters, personnel files and administrative memos that the diocese has refused to release for years.

The documents show that two victims committed suicide and at least one other became a molester himself.

Victim advocates hailed the files' release for allowing the first comprehensive examination of the diocese's handling of sexual abuse cases. Though several Joliet cases were investigated by the media, the diocese did not face the kind of scrutiny found in Boston, Chicago or other major cities.

"In many ways, Joliet was far worse than others," said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It flew under the radar because of its size."

Most of the files reflect reports taken during the tenure of Imesch, who oversaw the diocese for 27 years and was in office when the churchwide scandal broke a decade ago. Imesch apologized in 2006 for any hurt caused by his words and decisions, after a deposition was unsealed in which he appeared unrepentant about sexual abuse allegations.

The records indicate that on at least two occasions, Chicago cardinals had intervened in cases and persuaded Imesch to respond accordingly.

The first instance occurred in 1993, when diocesan officials were dealing with the Rev. Larry Mullins, who eventually was accused by more than a dozen boys.

Documents show that Imesch and Auxiliary Bishop Roger Kaffer had a disagreement over whether Mullins should be returned to ministry after treatment for a sexual disorder. Kaffer argued that Mullins needed to be removed from ministry, according to the documents, but he said Imesch believed that the priest had been cured of any pedophilia and was ready to resume duties.