The Church on Trial: Part 2
Rape Accusations in Cleveland
By David Kohn
June 12, 2002
Thursday, the entire U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will do something that organization has never done before: listen to victims. Bishop Wilton Gregory, the president of the Conference, says they should have done that a long time ago, Ed Bradley reports.
"The victims are our people, they are our children. They are young men and women who are Catholic, by and large. And the fact that we didn't reach out to them was a terrible disservice to them," Gregory says.
"Has anyone gone back to find these victims, to offer them help today?" Bradley asked him.
"To be perfectly honest, Ed, one of the greatest sorrows of this moment is that many of those people have left the faith, have stopped believing in God, many of them have lived terribly pained lives. So that's something that we as bishops need to accept responsibility for and need to address more effectively in the future."
Perhaps the most troubling fact the bishops must address is that the Church has not only failed to reach out to victims, but fought against those who tried to report they'd been abused. That's what happened to two women in Cleveland, Ohio. Both women were raised as Catholics. Both love their faith. And when they were little girls, both were raped by priests.
Stacie White has lived in Cleveland most of her life. She's 29 now, but the memories of her Catholic childhood are still vivid. "It was the foundation of our family. We said the rosary at night as a family before we'd go to bed, church on Sunday," she says.
She remembers her first communion: "I was the youngest of five. It was finally my chance to wear the white dress, so I was excited. And it's the time when you're in the church, when you feel like you're a part of the church, where you get to participate fully."
Father Martin Louis helped preside at Stacie White's first communion, when she was 8 years old. "I didn't ask him to be there, but he was there and he just had a way of making himself present," she says.
Det. Joseph Bensi of the Euclid Police Department investigated Stacie White's case.
"(Father Louis) would invite himself, which he did on many occasions. Simply mingle in because he was, in fact, a priest in collar and people would pay attention to him," Bensi says.
Was he going to first communion to check out his victims? "That's our belief-he's a classic sexual predator. He was stalking his prey basically," says Bensi.
"He was smart," says Stacie. "He was sly. I mean it took a long time for him to build a rapport with my family and to establish trust and get to know my parents and my siblings and myself."
"That's what makes this crime so despicable is that he gained their trust so completely. And in the meantime, he was focused completely on Stacie. And he began to set her up," says Bensi.
"It starts small with hugs, or touch my leg or my hand, and then you know it progresses," she says.
"The most serious of the events took place in the home and in her very bed," says Bensi.
"He would simply tell the family that he was going to pray with her and in fact, he was. He would pray with her, but he would pray with her after he sexually molested her," says Bensi.
She says she would be in bed, and he would get in bed with her. What would he say? "A lot of things. I mean sometimes he'd cover my mouth, where I couldn't say things and he would just say, 'It'll be over quick,' or, I mean, awful things," she says.
She says that he told her "'God knows about this; it's OK. You know I'm a part of God.' He wouldn't have, he would have never gotten as far if it wasn't for him using God," she says.
"I'm scared to death," Stacie says of the experiences. "I'm just lying there, praying to God that my body will somehow be lifted up or somebody will come in or the dog will bark or something. You know, you pray for anything as a child, you pray for my brother, anything to happen, anything to happen to get me out of that."
She says she never said anything because she was afraid she would burn in hell. That is what he told her would happen: "He said 'If you tell anyone, no one will believe you and you'll burn in hell.'"
Not far from Stacie White's home is Avon Lake, another Cleveland suburb, where Lynn Lotko-Toth grew up. When she was a girl, Lynn attended St. Joseph's elementary school, which was run by her local church.
"When I was growing up, the Church was number one, nothing took precedent over the Church. Church came first, above family, above anything," Lynn says.
She also remembers her first communion. She was seven: "White dress, veil, I felt like a bride. And at that point, I had decided I wanted to be a nun. It was wonderful."
Lynn's pastor was Father Carl Wernet.
In the fourth grade, Lynn says, Father Wernet started calling her out of class--to rape her.
"I was terrified," she says. She never told anyone. This went on until she was 13, she says.
At some point, her parents learned that Wernet was abusing her. "Father Wernet said he was sorry and promised it wouldn't happen again and my father forgave him. But it didn't stop," she says.
Stacie White was so afraid of her attacker, Father Martin Louis, that it was five years before she could summon the courage to tell her story. In 1989, after she told a teacher at her school, Bensi was assigned the case.
"In fact, there had been suspicions; there had been concerns from various locations, various parishes he had served at, dating back at least 20 years," Bensi says.
"He'd admitted in therapy sessions that he'd molested, by his numbers, 90 children."
After she learned that, Stacie White filed a civil suit against the Diocese of Cleveland. The Church responded with a motion, alleging that her parents were partly responsible for allowing their daughter to be raped.
"It breaks their heart," Stacie says.
Santiago Feliciano directed the legal office for the Cleveland Diocese for 15 years. In effect, he was the Church's lawyer, and handled the Stacie White case.
Was it right to say that her parents were guilty of contributory negligence?
"I think, to be very honest, that it was a defense that at that time seemed appropriate. If you're asking me if I would do that now, I would not. Nor would I encourage anyone to do it," Feliciano says.
Feliciano explains the argument behind this defense: "The position they're putting forward is, they let him into the house. Once he's in the house, they should be monitoring his behavior, if you will."
Two years ago, Feliciano resigned. He says he had seen enough of the diocese's harsh treatment of victims.
"They were not as supportive as I judge they should have been to victims and their families," he says.
He says that their primary interest was "the institution of the Church, which would be what will people say, and we have assets to protect, that sort of thing. And they didn't really balance it out with how they traumatized families and individuals themselves."
Lynn Lotko-Toth says she blocked out what her pastor had done to her, once she left elementary school. She says when she recalled it decades later, the first person she told was her parish priest.
"He told me at that point that I needed to confess it. I needed to keep my mouth shut because I'd already shamed my family enough," she says.
"It was to me not only humiliating, but I felt at that point that nobody cared and there was nothing I could do, and I had to keep my mouth shut," she says.
For another two years, Lynn says she kept quiet about what had happened to her. Then she called diocese headquarters.
They did not say they had any information that would tend to confirm her story, she says. They denied everything.
In 1992, Lynn tacked up posters around her town and ran an ad in her local newspaper, looking for other victims of Father Wernet who could confirm her story.
The next day, another girl came forward and said she had also been abused. In all, 29 people contacted her, both males and females.
In 1993, Lynn Lotko-Toth and seven other women sued the Cleveland Diocese for $5 million. The Diocese fought the lawsuit for five years, until a judge dismissed it because of the statute of limitations. By then, Father Carl Wernet had been dead for 18 years.
The Church settled with Stacie White for $385,000. Her attacker, Father Martin Louis, is now serving a 25-year sentence at Grafton Correctional Center. Last year, Stacie went to visit him.
"That was my demon," she says. "You know, you still think of the person who hurt you as a child in childlike eyes and you know here before me was a man, an older man, and that's what he was, he was just a man."
When she walked into the room where he was, she said that she forgave him.
Did he say that he had changed, that he no longer wanted to molest children?
"No," she says.
What did he say? "He works on it every day," says Stacie.
Stacie White still considers herself a devout Catholic. As for Lynn Lotko-Toth, she says she believes in the Catholic faith, but cannot bear to be near a priest in a collar.
Not all accusations against priests have as much evidence as Stacie White's and Lynn Lotko-Toth's do.
The leaders of the Catholic Church say they are concerned some allegations may be false - especially those involving recovered memories. They often cite the case of a former Chicago cardinal, whose reputation was unjustly stained when an accuser claimed to have remembered that the cardinal had abused him many years before, only to admit later that it never happened.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
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