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Survivor Narratives

Gary D. Berthiaume

One might have thought that Father Gary Berthiaume would have run out of second chances by the time he arrived in the Diocese of Joliet in 1988 as a disgraced priest. A decade earlier, while he was assigned to a parish in the Archdiocese of Detroit, a Michigan court convicted Berthiaume of sexually abusing a child. After being released from prison, Berthiaume was shuffled off to the Diocese of Cleveland and assigned to a local parish as if nothing had happened. But Berthiaume continued to offend. He admittedly “used poor judgment” and made “foolish decisions” to continue “taking out young men,” even planning trips with them in secret. When his actions came to the attention of Cleveland church leaders, Berthiaume was sent out of state for “treatment” and told he could not return to the diocese.

But Berthiaume found a saving grace in Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet. The two men had served together in the 1970s at Our Lady of Sorrows in Farmington, Michigan. At the time, Bishop Imesch was a rising star in the Archdiocese of Detroit. A few years after being ordained in 1956, he became the secretary to the archbishop. After serving in this capacity for over a decade, he was named pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in 1971, a position he continued to occupy through 1977. Meanwhile, in 1973, he also took on the role of auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

In the same year, Berthiaume arrived at Our Lady of Sorrows to serve as an associate pastor under Bishop Imesch. During the four years they worked together, Bishop Imesch found Berthiaume to be “a wonderful minister” who was “very apostolic.” So it came as a shock when he turned on the radio one day in 1977—only a few months after leaving Our Lady of Sorrow for a position as regional bishop in the Archdiocese of Detroit—and heard a report that Berthiaume had been arrested for sexually abusing a child. At the time, Bishop Imesch didn’t believe Berthiaume could have done anything wrong. He had never “seen anything or heard anything that caused [him] to be suspicious that” Berthiaume had engaged in “inappropriate sexual conduct of any kind.” Bishop Imesch felt he “knew what kind of priest [Berthiaume] was and there was no indication of any abhorrent behavior.”

But Bishop Imesch’s instincts failed him. While he was awaiting trial, Berthiaume confessed to the bishop that he had in fact sexually abused a child as charged. Bishop Imesch kept this crucial information quiet, however. He did not tell police or prosecutors that Berthiaume had admitted his guilt. He later explained that he didn’t think it was his “responsibility” to aid law enforcement in their efforts to bring justice to the child survivor of Berthiaume’s criminal abuse.

Nevertheless, Berthiaume was convicted of sexually abusing a child and sentenced to six months in a Michigan prison. That should have disqualified him from serving as a parish priest ever again. It did not. In 1978, he “was given a chance for new life in ministry” in the Diocese of Cleveland, where he was initially assigned to a working-class parish in an industrial neighborhood. Years later, he would tell the Cleveland bishop in a letter that he was “truly grateful” for this opportunity for a fresh start. Berthiaume added: “You’re probably saying to yourself, if that’s how you feel, you sure had a heck of a way of showing it.”

What Berthiaume meant is that he had returned to his old ways. “There were a few occasions where I used poor judgment and made foolish decisions in taking young men out between 1983 and 1986,” Berthiaume admitted to the Cleveland bishop. His letter suggests he was less concerned about how his actions would affect these “young men” and more concerned about how they might affect the church’s reputation: “It may have seemed that I was acting irresponsibly even while all the publicity was going on and placing not only your position, but that of every priest in jeopardy.”

In the summer of 1987, Berthiaume “exercised poor judgment again by planning a raft trip for August with three young men.” This turned out to be the last straw for Berthiaume in Cleveland. The bishop got word of the excursion and determined to send Berthiaume to a church-affiliated psychiatric institution in Maryland “for evaluation.” Berthiaume arrived in February 1988 and resided there a few months receiving “treatment.” After reflecting on “the risky behavior I engaged in,” Berthiaume told the Cleveland bishop: “I could understand how you could not give me your full support to return to the Diocese, not only because of your feelings and concerns about me, but because of the tremendous pressure from the press we all felt.”

Berthiaume’s efforts to avoid temptation weren’t helped by Bishop Imesch’s decision to keep his past under wraps. Berthiaume reported he was occasionally asked “to take a children’s Mass or help with confessions at grade or high schools in the area.” Presumably the parishioners making these requests of Berthiaume were unaware he had been convicted of child sex abuse.

Fortunately for Berthiaume, his former colleague had since been appointed bishop of the Diocese of Joliet. Bishop Imesch knew, of course, that Berthiaume had sexually abused a child in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He also knew of Berthiaume’s disgraceful tenure in the Diocese of Cleveland. And he knew that the Cleveland bishop thought Berthiaume was oblivious to “the harm and scandal he caused.” Despite all this, Bishop Imesch welcomed Berthiaume to the Diocese of Joliet in October 1988.

He later explained his reasoning to a concerned former parishioner: “A number of years ago, because of my relationship with [Berthiaume], I replied to his request to come to the Diocese of Joliet for ministry by assigning him as a chaplain at [the Cenacle] retreat house [in Warrenville] run by religious women. The Sisters were given full information about his past. I accepted [Berthiaume] after speaking with therapists who had worked with him over a period of time. They felt that he had responded favorably to his therapy and they felt that he could effectively and safely minister under supervision.” Bishop Imesch granted Berthiaume full priestly faculties in the diocese and trusted the Cenacle sisters to enforce his restriction that Berthiaume was forbidden “to deal with young people.” He made no efforts to inform the broader diocesan community about Berthiaume’s wrongdoing.

Even after arriving in the Diocese of Joliet for another new start, Berthiaume remained concerned about the possibility of offending again. In December 1989, he wrote: “I am very conscious of avoiding places such as theatres, malls, etc. at times when young people may be around. I can’t place myself in any situation which may cause me any difficulty.” Although he was permitted to minister at a local hospital, Berthiaume said he avoided the “adolescent psych ward” unless “either a parent or nurse was present.” Berthiaume’s efforts to avoid temptation weren’t helped by Bishop Imesch’s decision to keep his past under wraps. Berthiaume reported he was occasionally asked “to take a children’s Mass or help with confessions at grade or high schools in the area.” Presumably the parishioners making these requests of Berthiaume were unaware he had been convicted of child sex abuse. According to Berthiaume, he said “no” to each of these opportunities.

In May 1990, Bishop Imesch appointed Berthiaume as the Catholic chaplain at Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove. First, however, he obtained written assurances from the Diocese of Cleveland that it would “assume responsibility for any liability incurred by” Berthiaume in this role. Berthiaume was forbidden to have any contact with child patients at the hospital, including those in the adolescent psychiatric ward. Ten years passed without any apparent incident, until a local television news station learned of Berthiaume’s past conviction for child sex abuse and present ministry at Good Samaritan Hospital. Bishop Imesch was unapologetic when asked for his comment on the April 2000 story: “It is unfortunate, I think, that Channel 7 considers it newsworthy to report something that occurred over 20 years ago. [Berthiaume] has been duly punished for his offense. He has undergone extensive therapy, has had continuing consultation, and has followed up with the advice of his therapists to attempt to reconstruct his life.”

But even Bishop Imesch could not resist the wind of change that was now picking up speed around the country. In early 2002, the Boston Globe began reporting the bombshell conclusions of its investigation into clergy sex abuse and the church’s historical efforts to cover it up. The public outcry that followed forced Good Samaritan to relieve Berthiaume of his ministry—much to the bishop’s chagrin. “I know that the hospital placed itself at risk by hiring him,” he lamented to its chief executive in May 2002, “and I know I did as well, but I was convinced that he was someone who was working hard to lead a moral life.”

Despite the backlash, Bishop Imesch expressed no regret for allowing a priest convicted of child sex abuse to minister in the Diocese of Joliet. “I am convinced that some abusers can be rehabilitated and can function without putting children at risk,” he wrote a group of Good Samaritan nurses in May 2002. Berthiaume “is a prime example of that. However, as I listen to many people, there seems to be little support for allowing a child abuser to function in any ministry, even a restricted one. It is unfortunate and will certainly mean the loss of some very dedicated ministers.” Bishop Imesch held fast to his view that Berthiaume remained deserving of a ministry. In October 2004, he wrote to Kenneth Kaucheck, pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan: “I firmly believe that Father Berthiaume has demonstrated that a priest who has abused children can become a productive and trusted minister. . . . I would hope that some consideration could be given to allowing him to serve in some restricted ministry.” Nothing came of the inquiry—and a few years later, Kaucheck himself was removed from ministry due to a credible allegation that he had sexually abused a child.

As for Berthiaume, he was laicized and thus dismissed from the clerical state in late 2007. He apparently remained in the Warrenville area until the fall of 2020, when he was extradited to Michigan to stand trial on charges of sexually assaulting a 14 year old boy in the rectory of Our Lady of Sorrows in August 1977.

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Terms are defined as provided in the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops Glossary of Catholic Terms, unless denoted with *.

Altar server
Individuals, usually children, who assist clerics during liturgical functions such as mass. Prior to 1994, only men and boys were permitted to be altar servers.*
The title given automatically to bishops who govern archdioceses. It is also given to certain other high-ranking church officials.
The chief diocese of an ecclesiastical province. It is governed by an archbishop.
Auxiliary Bishop
A bishop assigned to a Catholic diocese or archdiocese to assist its residential bishop.
The highest order of ordained ministry in the Catholic Church. The chief priests in their respective dioceses. Bishops are responsible for the pastoral care of their dioceses. All bishops have a responsibility to act in council with other bishops to guide the church.
A man who has taken vows in a religious order but is not ordained or studying for the priesthood. Sometimes he is called a lay brother to distinguish him from ordained members of religious orders.
Canon Law

A code of ecclesiastical laws governing the Catholic Church.

Highest-ranking Catholic clergy below the pope. Cardinals are regarded as the pope's closest advisors. Most cardinals are archbishops.
The chief archivist of a diocese's official records. Also a notary and secretary of the diocese’s central administration.
Clergy is a collective term referring to all those ordained—bishops, priests, and deacons—who administer the rites of the church. A cleric is an individual member of the clergy. Only men are permitted to join the clergy.
Confession or Reconciliation
The Catholic sacrament in which one makes a voluntary self-accusation of sins to a qualified priest in private in order to obtain absolution. The priest provides the confessor, also known as the penitent, with a penance to atone for sins committed. A priest who hears confession is forbidden from disclosing the contents of a confession to others under what is called the seal of confession.*
The personnel and offices through which (1) the pope administers the affairs of the universal church (the Roman Curia), or (2) a bishop administers the affairs of a diocese (the diocesan curia). The principal officials of a diocesan curia are the vicar general, the chancellor, officials of the diocesan tribunal or court, examiners, consultors, auditors, and notaries.
Dallas Charter
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People sets forth policies for each United States archdiocese and diocese to adopt as part of an effort to address allegations of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy. The Charter was formulated at the 2002 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, Texas. The Charter was revised in 2005, 2011, and 2018.
One of three groups that comprise the clergy, meaning those ordained for ministry. Only men are permitted to become deacons. Deacons preparing for the priesthood are transitional deacons. Those not planning to be ordained priests are called permanent deacons. Married men may be ordained permanent deacons, but only unmarried men committed to lifelong celibacy can be ordained deacons if they are planning to become priests.
Diocesan Priest
Priests under the direction of their local bishop. Most serve in the parishes of the diocese, but they may also be assigned to other diocesan ministries or released for service outside the diocese.
A territorial division of the Church headed by a bishop.
Extern Priest
A priest with faculties to minister in a diocese or archdiocese who was not ordained in that diocese or archdiocese. For example, a diocesan priest from the Diocese of Springfield who has been granted faculties to minister by the Archdiocese of Chicago is an extern priest.*
Church authorization, given by the law itself or by a Church superior, to perform certain official acts.
Members of the Catholic Church. Derived from Catholic teachings that clergy are like shepherds guiding a flock.*
Laicize or Defrock
The process by which a priest is returned to the lay state. It is sometimes used as a penalty for a serious crime, but also can come at the request of the priest. A laicized priest is barred from all priestly ministry with one exception: He may give absolution to someone in immediate danger of death. The pope must approve all requests for laicization. When a priest is laicized without his consent for a crime, such as committing child sexual abuse, it is sometimes called defrocking.
Any activity conducive to the salvation of souls. It can include ordained ministry such as liturgical leadership and administration of the sacraments, or lay ministry such as instructing children in the faith, serving the poor, visiting the sick, or being an altar server, reader, or music leader at mass.
An honorary ecclesiastical title granted by the pope to some diocesan priests.
A member of a religious order of women who has taken solemn or simple vows.
Ordination is the sacramental ceremony in which a man becomes a deacon, priest, or bishop. A cleric who has undergone ordination is known as ordained.*
A specific community within a diocese with its own church building and under the authority of a pastor who is responsible for providing ministerial service. Most parishes are formed on a geographic basis, but they may be formed along national or ethnic lines.
A priest in charge of a Catholic parish or congregation.
Acts performed to atone for committed sins, as directed by a priest in the Catholic sacrament of reconcilliation.*
Residential housing for clergy provided by the Church. A rectory can also contain administrative offices for a parish.*
Religious Cleric
Professed member of a religious order or institute. Religious clergy live according to the rule of their respective orders.
Religious Order or Order
An institution of men or women, at least some of whose members take solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and whose male members are sometimes ordained.*
An educational institution for men preparing for the priesthood.
A cleric who acts in the name of another cleric.*
Vicar general
A priest, auxiliary bishop, or coadjutor bishop who assists the diocesan bishop in the governance of the diocese.
Victims Assistance Coordinator

A diocesan employee who has been designated to coordinate assistance to survivors of sex abuse by clerics.*