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  Cleveland Diocese Awaits Vatican Ruling
20 Priests Remain on Paid Leave over Abuse Allegations during National Scandal

By Colette M. Jenkins
Beacon Journal [Cleveland OH]
January 3, 2005

During the past two years, 20 priests have been on paid leave in Cleveland's Catholic Diocese, local figures in a national scandal over how the church responds to allegations of priest abuse.

To date, 17 are still waiting to hear whether they will be allowed to serve as priests again.

For the majority of them, that decision rests with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a department of the Vatican in Rome.

The Rev. Lawrence Jurcak, diocesan secretary and vicar for clergy and religious, says Cleveland Bishop Anthony M. Pilla cannot make an official determination on any of the cases until a response comes from Rome.

The congregation, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has several options when deciding on each case: laicization, or defrocking, from the priesthood; a canonical, or church, trial in Cleveland or in Rome; or an administrative penal process in Cleveland.

According to the Vatican Web site, the congregation's duty is "to promote and safeguard the doctrine on the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world: For this reason everything which in any way touches such matter falls within its competence."

Diocesan officials would not give details on any of the cases, including the exact number that have been sent to the Vatican. There is no timetable for when the congregation will respond.

Until then, the priests will remain on leave with full salary and benefits. They are still prohibited from performing their priestly duties.

Some of the cases are still being investigated by the predominantly lay diocesan review board. The board is charged with investigating allegations of the sexual abuse of a minor and preparing a recommendation for the bishop. It is chaired by Pat Ritzert, a Cleveland attorney and a member of St. Vincent's parish in Akron.

Ritzert said it is impossible to tell how long it will take to complete the investigations. She would not reveal how many cases are being investigated by the board.

"The majority of the cases have gone to Rome, but we're working our way through the other cases," Ritzert said. "There is such a large amount of variation in the time it takes to investigate each case that it's difficult to draw an average time spent on a case. We just want people to understand that we are being as careful as we can."

Three cases have been resolved since the review board was established in May 2003.

In August, restrictions were placed on the Rev. John Mueller that prevent him from performing duties as a priest. Pilla made the decision after the review board indicated that evidence showed the allegation against Mueller was true.

Mueller was placed on administrative leave July 4, 2002, while pastor at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Wooster. The allegation against him, which he still denies, dates to 1962, when his accuser was 16 years old. Mueller, who is retired, was not removed from the priesthood because in 1962, church law recognized a 16-year-old as an adult.

At the time of Mueller's suspension, Pilla had accepted his retirement, which was effective March 3, 2003 -- his 70th birthday. As a retired priest, Mueller receives benefits including hospitalization coverage, a housing allowance and money for continuing education.

The case against the Rev. Joseph Romansky, who was accused of molesting dozens of boys in Cleveland over 20 years, was closed when he died last year. Romansky's death was reported as illness-related.

The details have not been released in a third case that was resolved last year. Jurcak says the diocese is honoring the priest's request for no publicity.

Evidence against some of the priests arose in a seven-month investigation by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason into allegations of sex abuse in the diocese. That investigation concluded in December 2002 and included records that were more than 50 years old. It showed that more than 1,000 people alleged they had been sexually abused by nearly 500 people, of whom 145 were priests.

A grand jury that considered the allegations returned criminal indictments against one priest and six diocesan employees. Many of the priests escaped criminal charges because the time limit for charging them had expired, Mason said.

In an effort to tackle the sex abuse issue, the diocese has implemented mandatory training -- VIRTUS, Protecting God's Children -- for employees and volunteers in the eight-county diocese, which includes Summit, Medina and Wayne counties.

To date, nearly 40,000 people have been involved in the training, which aims to prevent child sexual abuse.

 
 

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