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Priest Series Stirs Protest, Praise, Calls for Action
Stories on sexual abuse draw claims of more victims, defense of bishop, diocese

By Linda Graham Caleca and Richard D. Walton
Indianapolis Star
March 2, 1997

[See links to all the articles in this series from the Indianapolis Star.]

A newspaper investigation detailing sexual abuse in the Lafayette Diocese prompted impassioned responses from readers as well as pronouncements from priests, including one call for an outside investigation of the diocese.

More than 400 people contacted The Indianapolis Star and The Indianapolis News after a recent series to voice sentiments ranging from anger at the newspapers to outrage at the diocese's leader, Bishop William L. Higi.

Somber Time: Bishop William Higi says he and his priests are grieving over troubles afflicting his diocese. Staff Photo / Joe Young.

Many assailed the stories as too graphic and sensationalized. "It was sickening," said one reader who didn't want to be identified but clearly was angry that the articles even were published.

At the other extreme were readers appalled at the abuses inflicted by priests, and at the secrecy that hid them. "Higi has been covering up for years," a reader said.

The series, Faith Betrayed, spurred seven more people to contact the newspapers with claims of abuse by Roman Catholic priests. Not all the accusations involved the Lafayette Diocese. One mother who said her son had been abused described the stories as "a godsend" and said she prayed they would help prevent other cases of child abuse.

One priest, the Rev. Edward Dhondt of St. Ambrose Church in Anderson, said he "wept" while reading the series, which he described as "painful."

Writing in his church bulletin, Dhondt alerted his parishioners that one of the priests revealed as a sexual abuser in the series served at St. Ambrose in 1986. Dhondt said he feared that the Rev. Ken Bohlinger might have left additional victims in Anderson, and he urged those who believe they were victimized to seek help. Bohlinger, who no longer functions as a priest, now lives in Arizona.

Dhondt, while expressing love and compassion for Higi, questioned whether the diocese can heal its own wounds. He took the extraordinary step of calling for a canonical investigation by the Catholic Church. Such a probe would need the backing of other priests and require the approval of Pope John Paul II.

Objective observers, wrote Dhondt, are needed to uncover and assess the "ills which seem to have our diocese in their grip."

Higi, too, has requested outside help. He has asked the Chicago Archdiocese to review his policies and procedures covering sexual misconduct cases.

The bishop also called together his priests Thursday to discuss the stories, and priests' reactions to them. After the meeting, he issued a statement through a public relations firm. Said Higi: "We as priests are at a moment of tears and grieving."

Pattern of secrecy

Faith Betrayed detailed sexual abuse and misconduct by 16 current and former priests in the diocese over the past 25 years. The articles revealed a long-term pattern of secrecy that kept many of the abuses from the community.

Higi, while acknowledging there have been 12 troubled priests in the diocese since he took office in 1984. suggested some of the offenses were relatively minor. None of the abusers of children or teens identified by the newspapers went to prison. Rather, some were allowed to slip out of town and begin new lives outside the priesthood.

The series also detailed Higi's system of disciplining priest offenders, an approach that makes a sharp distinction between child and teen-age victims.

Abuse of children is viewed as worse than teen abuse. Higi's second-in-command, the Rev. Robert Sell, said some teen victims can "consent" to sex acts and might be partly responsible for their own abuse.

Tom Lawrence, a Catholic from Lafayette,says the dioosse's bishop should resign.

That and other statements from the diocese outraged many Catholics who called, wrote or sent electronic messages to the newspapers after the series ran Feb. 16-18.

Faith Betrayed – and Higi's reaction to the stories – so upset Tom Lawrence that he called for Higi's resignation.

Lawrence, a Lafayette Catholic and grandfather of five, said the bishop has shown "unchecked arrogance" in responding to charges of sexual abuse within the diocese.

Instead of defending perpetrators and his actions as bishop, Lawrence said, Higi should have said: "'This is a tragedy for our community and we are looking into ways to deal with this. We are going to take proper action, and we will be in touch with you as we proceed.'"

Lawrence said he is disturbed that there are suffering victims – "their numbers, we will never, ever know.

"It is a very dark day for our priesthood."

Melinda Harlow of Indianapolis said she was appalled to read of the years of sexual abuse and misconduct, and of the bishop's leniency toward perpetrators.

"I cannot believe Bishop Higi did what he did," the 62-year-old Catholic said. "By letting them get off and smackin' their little fingers...

Higi, as the series pointed out, answers only to the pope.

"Well." Harlow asked, "what does the pope say about this?"

Other readers, though, criticized the stories: One woman accused the newspapers of doing great harm.

"You don't know how much you have hurt me, other people, other Catholics who have been good Catholics. And my children," she said. "I just hate, hate, I just hate you. You will be punished for this."

Said another reader: "I'm a Catholic, 62 years old, and to me The Indianapolis Star is the garbage pit, the bottom."

Some Catholics, such as Pat Helmer, questioned why the newspapers did not also examine sexual misconduct in other denominations.
Helmer, of Indianapolis, said she was offended to see the stories "splashed" across the front page.

"I'm not saying that what was in the paper was untrue, but .it was scandalous, it was sensationalized," she said. "This is a very evil world and made much more evil with help from the media."

The Rev. Richard Weisenberger sees evil, too – but on the part of abusive priests.

Weisenberger, of St. Mary Cathedral in Lafayette, wrote in his church bulletin that the newspaper articles detailed "serious evil within the church and specifically this diocese."

That evil, he wrote, must be confronted to be overcome. But he added in an interview that a lack of "basic honesty" on the part of Bishop Higi worries him.

That's why he refused to attend Higi's meeting with priests last week in Kokomo. Weisenberger says that while the bishop wanted to gather his clergy to "process this trauma" caused by the stories, the only trauma Weisenberger feels was inflicted by the bishop.

Weisenberger became upset when Higi claimed in the series not to know why a review board that Higi had created to advise him on sexual misconduct cases resigned in 1995. All the members quit after Higi bypassed the board on one controversial case.

Higi's statement amazed Weisenberger because he sat on the board and had warned the bishop in a letter of the threatened resignations.

Because Higi was less than honest on that point, Weisenberger said, the question now is whether he has been truthful in other instances.

Other priests rushed to the bishop's defense in their church bulletins.

The Rev. Leo Piguet of St. Elizabeth Seton Church in Carmel said that old wounds were "opened and gouged" in the newspapers' series, which he complained included "morbid details" of sexual abuse. Piguet also wrote that Higi has taken pains to address the problem of abuse and to "vilify" him is unfair.

The Rev. Jim Bates of Our Lady of Grace Church in Noblesville told his parishioners that the stories offered "a test of faith for all of us."

"Events revealed about the private lives of some priests of the diocese have caused many to be astonished and to feel shame," Bates wrote.

Bates said the articles not only hurt Catholics who had no prior knowledge of the incidents, but victimized Higi by portraying him as "insensitive, despotic and unfair."

Higi also was defended by Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein, who decried the "sensationalized" series and said that prayer and fasting – not investigative journalism – were the answers to sexual abuse.

At some Indianapolis churches, priests read Buechlein's statement and urged parishioners to cancel their subscriptions to The Star and The News.

Pleas for the victims

When that call went out at one Westside church, a Catholic woman who had been abused as a teen-ager by an older acquaintance said she got up and "stormed out." As a victim and as a mother, she said, she was offended that the priest did not focus more on the victims of abuse.

"I just wanted to get out of there," she said.

A Logansport woman, who says she was abused by a priest many years ago, also was gratified to see the Lafayette Diocese's abuses exposed. She said the series is "probably the only thing the victims will get" in the way of justice.

An Indianapolis woman who said her son was abused by a priest called the stories a godsend and urged parents to watch their children for signs of abuse. In her son's case, she said, he became depressed and didn't want to be touched.

Bishop Higi insists he deeply feels victims' pain. In his most recent column in the diocese's newspaper, The Catholic Moment, he wrote of difficult meetings with abuse victims.

"With tears in my own eyes, I have told them how sorry I am," he wrote. "I have told them the very thought that a priest could abuse a child is horrific to me. As they have yelled and sobbed, I have felt their anger."

Tom Lawrence, the Catholic who called for Higi's resignation, is angry, too. And worried. Despite all the controversy, he fears nothing will change.

Then if more children are abused, he said, "we only have ourselves to blame."

 
 

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