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  Parish at Peace Despite Criticism Steubenville Fails Abuse Compliance

By Ann Rodgers
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [Steubenville OH]
January 11, 2004

Catholics of the Steubenville diocese are known for a deep faith that does not appear to have been shaken by a report that theirs was among 20 dioceses, out of 191, that failed to comply with some rules the U.S. bishops adopted to protect minors from sexual abuse.

The diocese was not accused of protecting abusive priests, but was cited for not running background checks on church workers and volunteers and for not having an education program for preventing child abuse.

Local Catholics interviewed last week said Bishop Daniel Conlon had been working hard on the issue, and some believed that the bishops' national Charter for Child and Youth Protection bordered on overkill.

"It breaks my heart to have to do all this crazy stuff because of a few bad folks," said Sue Vallera, band booster president at Steubenville's Catholic Central High School, which two of her children attend.

But Claudia Vercellotti, an Ohio coordinator for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said there was no excuse for a diocese that draws thousands of teenagers each summer to Catholic youth conferences at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

"You would think they would be the first to embrace change or reform, given the number of people they come in contact with," she said.

Steubenville, with 40,000 parishioners scattered over 13 Appalachian counties, is the smallest Roman Catholic diocese east of the Mississippi. The Diocese of Greensburg, considered small by Pittsburgh standards, has 183,000 Catholics in four counties.

Steubenville was spun off from the Diocese of Columbus in 1944. One story says it was to be a mission diocese supported by all the Ohio bishops. A more cynical theory, given that outside support never came, was that the Columbus bishop wanted to rid himself of responsibility for its poverty-ridden coal patch towns.

Small, poor dioceses had the greatest difficulty organizing the abuse prevention programs that the charter mandates, due to lack of staff and money to carry them out, according to the audit report released Tuesday. Steubenville parishioners note that Conlon became bishop seven weeks after the child protection charter was adopted in 2002 and had to learn his way around the diocese while figuring out how to apply the charter.

The diocese has offered no excuses for the slow compliance, other than to say that there had been a misperception that only those who started work after March 2003 required background checks.

Conlon issued a statement saying that background checks of every priest, deacon, employee, volunteer and independent contractor who had regular contact with minors would be completed by May 31.

He said the diocesan Child Protection Review Board was working on an abuse prevention program.

"We need to do everything we can to allow God's grace to manifest itself to the children among us," he wrote.

Diocesan officials offered no further explanation. "I have nothing else to say and [the bishop] doesn't either," said the Rev. Gerald Calovini, communications director.

The audit report was not all negative. It noted that Conlon had held many "listening sessions" for Catholics to express concerns about sexual predators in the clergy, something not mandated by the charter.

The opening screen of the diocesan Web page has a link to its diocesan Decree on Child Abuse, including a list of civil agencies where victims can report abuse.

The names and e-mail addresses of all seven members of the lay review board that advises the bishop on each reported case of abuse are also posted.

Other reports indicate high morale. Last year, 71 of 75 parishes pledged more than the diocese asked for its annual fund-raising campaign.

But the diocese is overshadowed by another Catholic institution, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, which is marked by high-intensity piety and enthusiastic promotion of papal teaching. It draws so many highly committed Catholics that locals joke that their plumbers all have theology degrees.

Last year, it was the university's conference director who asked diocesan officials whether their youth events, which draw 6,000 teens to the school each summer, were subject to diocesan child protection regulations, said Tom Sofio, a spokesman for the university. Consequently, the diocese reviewed the conference and declared them in compliance.

Years ago, the university decreed that high school students who stay in the dormitories must keep their doors open at all times, he said.

There is one adult chaperone for every three to four students, and all sending parishes have been told that chaperones must have had the background checks and child safety education required by their own diocese.

The Steubenville diocese has acknowledged two accusations, although the alleged abuse occurred elsewhere.

The diocese paid $25,000 in 1991 to settle a case against the Rev. Carl Peltz, a Navy chaplain accused of raping a 12-year-old in 1984 at a base in Iceland. Peltz later transferred to the Diocese of Kalamazoo. After a lay review board reinvestigated the case last year, the bishop of Kalamazoo declared the accusation false. Peltz is still a priest in Michigan.

Last year, the former Rev. Anthony Jablonowski, who transferred from the Diocese of Cheyenne to Steubenville in 1997 to found a religious order, was removed from ministry due to allegations of sexual abuse 20 years earlier in Wyoming.

Vercellotti, from the Ohio victim's group, believes there have been more abusers in the past.. Victims have called her in Toledo "seeking help because they felt so isolated in Steubenville. They felt their cries for help were not being acknowledged," she said.

A SNAP member who grew up in the Steubenville diocese told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that her former parish priest, now long dead, had sexually abused four teenage boys in her extended family more than 25 years ago. Another priest, to whom the abuser insisted that one victim confess the sin of their sexual contact, also made sexual advances toward the teen, she said.

But asked if anyone in her family ever reported the abuse to the diocese, she said she didn't believe so.

Complaints taken to the diocese before 1977 might prove impossible to trace. According to "A History of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio," in 1977, a former bishop, "as a step toward reconciliation among the priests," burned all of their confidential files.

Barbara Jean Applegarth, 70, has lived in the diocese all of her life and has never distrusted its priests.

"Any decent mother would feel it was important to get rid of them if there was any priest like that in the diocese. But I've never run across any of them," said Applegarth, a past president of the diocesan Women's Club who lives in rural Pleasant Grove.

"You hear gossip, but you don't want to go around repeating it. You don't know for sure whether it's true."

She trusts Conlon.

"He's doing good. He's changing a lot of things in the diocese," she said.

Vallera, the band booster, said her husband had already undergone a state-required background check as a volunteer bus driver, and that it wasn't a big problem.

Her biggest concern is the diocese's new two-adult rule, which says that, except for a teacher in the classroom, a priest hearing confession or an unforeseen emergency, at least two adults must be present during youth activities.

"A lot of our coaches are volunteers. How do you deal with someone who is sick and can't show up? Do you cancel practice?" she said.

Her larger question is why only Catholic institutions are held to this standard.

"The people in the public schools who volunteer, will they be scrutinized as well? Why does the fact that I'm Catholic mean that I have to have a background check in order to be a coach?"

 
 

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