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Church officials saw red flags before priest was hit with sex abuse lawsuit

Updated: June 2, 2014 1:09PM



Even before the Rev. Lawrence Gibbs became a priest in 1973, Diocese of Joliet officials showed a lack of faith in their young charge, using terms like “pompous” and “not too bright” to describe the seminarian, according to church records.

But in a 1971 performance review of the seminarian, there was a phrase that proved prophetic: “possible source of scandal.”

Father Larry — as Gibbs was known — created plenty of that during his roughly 20 years as priest, records show. Records allege he started molesting boys as early as 1976 — a practice he allegedly continued until at least 1987.

Accusations of sexual abuse against Gibbs — and 15 other priests from the Diocese of Joliet — was included in thousands of pages of records released by the attorneys for a plaintiff who previously sued the diocese. As part of the legal settlement, diocesan priest files were released to the plaintiff — some of which were released to the public for the first time Wednesday. According to the documents, the diocese found that sexual abuse complaints against all 16 were credible.

Separately, the diocese was hit with five new lawsuits Wednesday alleging four priests sexually abused minors decades ago and that the church followed a pattern of protecting priests while leaving children at risk; Gibbs was not a plaintiff in the newest lawsuits.

Allegations of sexual impropriety against Gibbs surfaced in the 1980s. But the diocese did not remove Gibbs until 1992, according to records.

During that time Gibbs drew a fair amount of diocese scrutiny, however. Church officials were exasperated with Gibbs’ “rebel style,” according to records.

In a letter to Gibbs in 1982, one church official upbraided him for doing “things differently, particularly at liturgies just to be different with the attitude that ‘No one is going to tell me HOW to perform.’ ”

Meanwhile, church officials appeared to be less concerned with reports of weekend camping trips Gibbs was taking young boys from his parish on.

During the trips to his cabin, Gibbs’ allegedly coerced them to play strip poker and fondled them, according to diocese records. At least two boys also said he paddled their behinds, diocese records show.

“Our son finally told us what went on at the cabin. We just hope that there is no permanent damage to any of the boys,” one unnamed parent wrote in a 1980 in a letter to the diocese. “It is hard to believe that nothing has been done, except to remove him from our parish.”

The solution, the diocese decided, was to transfer Gibbs — a practice they continued throughout his priesthood.

At one point, toward the end of his tenure, Gibbs was transferred to St. Peter and Paul in Naperville where he crossed paths with another priest also facing sex abuse accusations: the Rev. James Burnett, whom Gibbs served under.

In a confidential 1992 memo, Bishop Roger Kaffer praised Burnett’s handling of Gibbs, who was, by that time, under church investigation.

“Having worked with him on the Gibbs situation and just getting more of his philosophy and watching him a bit in action, it struck me . . . he may well have the qualities of a wonderful bishop,” Kaffer said of Burnett.

But Burnett, who has since left the priesthood and could not be reached for comment, has since had his own troubles. In 2005 several men came forward alleging he molested them in the ‘80s.

One of the victims alleged Burnett fondled him while he received the sacrament of First Confession at St. Mary’s Parish in Mokena, according to diocese records.

Burnett and Gibbs were never charged with a crime in those cases.

Contributing: Francine Knowles

Email: bslodysko@suntimes.com

Twitter: @BrianSlodysko



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