Bishop Joseph Imesch

Bishop Joseph Imesch visits in Kankakee in 2006.

Lawyers on Wednesday released a deposition with a long-serving bishop, along with letters and thousands of files from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet — documents they say show diocesan officials downplayed, dismissed and sometimes covered up sex abuse by priests.

In a 247-page deposition, Joseph L. Imesch, who was the Joliet bishop from 1979 to 2006, concedes under blistering questioning he sometimes allowed priests to stay on or transferred them as allegations they sexually abused children arose.

The Joliet diocese serves 655,000 churches and parishioners in seven counties, including Kankakee, Iroquois, Will, Ford, Grundy, Kendall and DuPage counties.

Taken as a whole, the documents paint a picture of a bishop who is consistently indecisive, at best, and diocese officials who seemed obsessed with ensuring the accusations couldn't sully their reputations, Jeff Anderson, whose law firm released the files on 16 priests, told reporters.

"The documents show a long-term pattern and long-term choices by ... bishops and their superiors to protect themselves and their priests at the peril of children," Anderson said.

In the 2005 deposition with Imesch, he was asked about Edward Stefanich, a longtime priest in the diocese who was eventually arrested in 1987 and later pleaded guilty to criminal sexual abuse.

Asked if he considered taking complaints about Stefanich to police years earlier — potentially stopping Stefanich before he abused others — Imesch said he had not.

"I would not do that," he says in the deposition. "There is no hard evidence this is happening. And I am not going to go say, 'Hey, police. Go check on my priest.'"

The Joliet diocese would not deal with abuse allegations the same way now, diocesan spokesman Edward Flavin said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

"Abuse allegations are handled far better today," he said. "Any and all allegations are fully reported to public authorities. ... We take it very seriously."

Imesch is retired and still living within the diocese, but not granting interviews, Flavin added.

In the deposition, Imesch acknowledges the diocese had a secret archive that only he and one person designated by him had access to, but he denied using it to bury complaints of sexual misconduct by priests.

The release of the deposition, letters and files Wednesday is the latest example of a U.S. diocese turning over documents — that are then opened to the public, as in this case, by attorneys. Earlier this year, the Archdiocese of Chicago released 6,000 pages of documents on about 30 priests.