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  A Secret Suppressed 30 Years
Woman Accuses Priest of Rape

By Karen Henderson
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio]
November 1, 1992

For 30 years, Linda Lotko Toth suppressed the memory of an experience too terrible to face. It was a secret that had torn at the Lotko family while Toth was growing up.

Ray and Marie Lotko were staunch Roman Catholics who regularly attended St. Joseph Catholic Church, raised their children in a strict Catholic home and sent them to the parish school.
Ray Lotko, Linda's father, said he would never forget the day his wife, now deceased, came to him. What she told him became a 30-year family nightmare.

"I remember my wife telling me that Father had molested Linda," Lotko said. He said he had been brought up to revere priests, and the family had relatives in the priesthood. Lotko said it was very difficult for him to accept that the Rev. Carl Wernet, trusted family friend and respected founder and pastor of St. Joseph Church in Avon Lake, would do anything wrong.

"All clergy were placed on a pedestal," Lotko said. He said he agonized over what he should do. Then, as he had done for most of his life when he had a problem, he went to the priest. Only this time his role was not of penitent but of accuser.

"I confronted him about it, and he said, 'Yes, I'm guilty.' He was crying like a baby,' Lotko recalled. "He said, 'I promise it will never happen again,' and I believed him. But, of course, it continued, but I never knew.' Linda Toth claims Wernet molested and eventually raped her when she was between the ages of 10 and 12. After each encounter, he rewarded her with a gift - candy, ice cream, cookies, sometimes a holy card or medal.

Toth, 42, blocked out the memories until last summer, when the incidents began to come back in nightmares and flashbacks. She said she began remembering the day Wernet raped her in the church sacristy.

"He gave me a rosary and told me I'd go to hell if I told anyone," Toth said.

"My father trusted the church and he trusted Father to stop," Toth said. But when Wernet continued to molest her, she said she felt her father had chosen the church over her. Toth said she did not know that her father had confronted the priest, who died about 10 years ago, until last year.

Toth withdrew from family and friends, her grades began to fall and she eventually blocked everything out of her mind.

Toth said the memories of what happened so long ago have come back slowly. With the help of counseling, she is learning to deal with them.

She said her mother never went back to church, though she prayed at home. Toth was married in the church and raised her children Catholic, but she has since left it.

Ray Lotko has remained a devout Catholic, attending church regularly, though he says what happened to his daughter is always on his mind.

"I've carried this for 30 years. It's been my hurt all of these years, too," Lotko said.

Toth said the incident drove a wedge between her parents. Their relationship was never the same. "It blew the family apart," she said.

After Toth began recalling what happened to her, she began a crusade to find other victims of Wernet and to bring about change in the church. She printed "wanted" posters, which she put up in Avon Lake stores, seeking "Adult Victims/Survivors of Acts of Molestation/Rape Perpetrated by Fr. Carl Wernet ... during the 1950s and 1960s."

The posters urged other victims who "would like to share your pain" to write to her.

Toth said the posters were taken down as fast as she put them up. She then ran ads in several newspapers asking for people who would "like to share their experiences."

On Sept. 3, 1991, Toth went to the Cleveland Catholic Diocese to complain about what had happened to her. She said diocesan officials referred her to a counselor and paid for her counseling. But she said the diocese had not taken the kind of action she would wish. She has started seeing another counselor who is independent of the church.

"I want them (the diocese) to investigate all of the allegations of this kind that they have in their files. I'm tired of their coverups," she said.

Santiago Feliciano, a lawyer for the diocese, described Toth's condition as "extremely distraught, upset and very fragile" when she came to the diocese last year. "We advised her to see a therapist, and the diocese paid for it."

Feliciano denied that the church had engaged in a coverup and said no allegations could be found in Wernet's personnel file. "I'm not invalidating her story," Feliciano said. "But none (other victims) have come forward."

Toth's lawyer, William Crosby, said that since Toth began her crusade, five other women have made similar allegations against Wernet. The women have gotten in touch with Toth, and Crosby said some have talked to him.

Crosby claims the diocese was aware of Wernet's activities and that is why he was transferred in 1966 to Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on Fulton Rd. in Cleveland.

Crosby said he was preparing a class action lawsuit against the diocese for not taking action to protect the women.

One of the five women, a Sheffield Lake mother of four who asked not to be identified, said Wernet had molested her when she was 13 years old. The woman, now 40, said she met Wernet while visiting another priest's summer home with her mother. The woman, who contacted Toth following published reports about Toth's allegations, said the molestation occurred over a period of about a year.

She said Wernet also gave her presents. "I received the leftover prizes from the church carnivals," she said. "He sure helped to ruin my life."

The woman said she has suffered emotional breakdowns and is seeing a psychiatrist. She blamed her early childhood experience for her low self-esteem, which she said led her as an adult into abusive relationships with men.

"I was never so happy to see a man die," she said of Wernet. The Sheffield Lake woman said she never went to the diocese with her allegations and never told anyone about the abuse when she was a child.

"Twenty years ago, no one would have believed a child," she said. She said she no longer attends church.

Toth, too, said as a child she had felt a sense of abandonment and was powerless to protect herself. She said the molestation began with fondling. Wernet also would force her to touch him. She said he eventually raped her.

"I remember him yelling at me the first time he raped me. He said, 'You should know where it goes.' I was just a child,' Toth said. "I had a total fear of not pleasing him."

It was Toth's youngest sister, Mary Brittain, who alerted their mother's suspicions. Brittain, who lives in Rhode Island, said she always felt uncomfortable around Wernet because he usually wanted her to sit on his lap.

Brittain said she remembers that Wernet frequently drove Toth to the eye doctor, and he often bought her chocolates. Brittain said she remembers being jealous because Wernet frequently called Toth out of class at the parish school.

"I remember asking my sister why she was leaving school," Brittain said. "She told me Wernet had bought another camera that he wanted her to see."

Brittain said it was her complaint about Wernet's invitation to her two older sisters to see "what a priest's bedroom looks like" that started their mother asking questions.

"I didn't think it was fair they got to see his bedroom and I didn't," she said. Brittain said she told their mother.

Toth said her parents questioned her, and she told them what had been happening. "They told me never to tell anyone," Toth said.

Brittain said what happened caused lasting dissension within the family.

"I personally feel it's really destroyed her (Toth's) life," Brittain said.

Toth agreed.

"I was scared to death I was going to hell," Toth said. "So many times I felt dirty and different. I thought I was a terrible person because I allowed this to happen."

Toth, who has two children, blames her childhood experience, in part, for the abusive relationships she has frequently found herself in. She has been divorced for 15 years.

Toth remains unconvinced that the diocese does all it can to protect children from sexual misconduct by priests. She wants the church to investigate such allegations vigorously. She also wants diocesan officials to search their files and to investigate every complaint, no matter how old.

She also wants legislation passed that will remove statutory limitations on the filing of criminal charges and civil lawsuits in molestation cases.

The normal statutory limitation on felony rape is six years. Limits on the filing of civil lawsuits vary, but are usually shorter. In felony rape cases, the statute of limitations doesn't begin until the felony has been reported to someone in authority.

Two weeks ago, Toth attended the first conference of Victims of Clergy Abuse Linkup, or VOCAL in Chicago. VOCAL is a lay group that tracks these cases and provides support for victims.

Toth said that when she is further along in her own treatment, she will establish a local chapter here to help other victims.

"One thing that really gets me is that I believe other members of the parish knew what was happening, but nobody ever did anything. It makes me so angry that they protected him," she said.

 
 

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