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.”
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.