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  Complaints of Ex-Priest's Lust Grow

By James F. McCarty
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio]
December 6, 1992

A cloak of deceit and denial that the Rev. Martin Louis had wrapped around himself for a decade is starting to peel away.

In the weeks since Louis was indicted on charges of raping and molesting a Euclid girl, more than a dozen people have come forward with long-suppressed accusations against the former priest from the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. Most of the accusers were confused children too embarrassed or protective of a respected man of God to take their concerns to authorities in the early 1980s, when the majority of the alleged sexual deeds occurred. Thus, officials contend, the diocese had only a hint of the extent of Louis' problem.

"You have to look at what information we had at that time," said Santiago Feliciano Jr., a lawyer for the diocese. "To say we had a great deal of information then is not accurate. ... The fact is, they never came to us."

The little that diocesan officials did know about Louis' sexual proclivities caused them to order the priest to seek psychiatric counseling and to assign him duties where he would have few opportunities for contact with pre-adolescent girls.

But the precautions apparently did not stop Louis, 53. He was forced to resign from the priesthood March 23, 1990. Since then, he has been undergoing intense inpatient and outpatient therapy at sexual clinics in Maryland, where he lives and works in relative obscurity as a greenskeeper at a golf course. He is free on $20,000 bond while awaiting trial.

To the hundreds of families and parishioners he had befriended since his ordination in 1966, Louis was simply Father Marty.

He was fun, always laughing and telling jokes. He danced with the band and downed a beer with the folks at the East Side Irish American Club. He frolicked with kids at rollerskating parties and picnics. People welcomed him into their homes like one of the family, said Euclid police Detective Joe Bensi, who spent the past two years investigating Louis.

Many of Louis' nights were devoted to socializing with friends. Fridays, for instance, might be pizza nights. Saturdays were spent watching movies and munching popcorn, Bensi said.

One of his favorite stops in the early 1980s was the home of a large, devout Catholic family in Euclid. Louis became their "friend and spiritual counselor," but showed special interest in a young daughter whom he had met at a First Communion party in 1980, according to Bensi and court documents.

By the summer of 1981, Louis was a regular evening visitor to their home after leaving his daily chaplain duties at Meridia Euclid Hospital. He often timed his visits for Tuesdays, when the parents were away attending prayer meetings, court documents said.

The relationship between Louis and the girl began innocently. He asked her to give him back rubs. But it progressed to kisses on the mouth, romps in the family swimming pool and child's play, during which Louis would touch her breasts, hold her tightly and sit her on his lap, the girl said in court documents.

In the summer and fall of 1984, the girl, then 11, said the priest stepped far over the line, according to court documents. He would accompany her to her bedroom under the pretense of assisting her evening prayers. He would undress her, lie on top of her and molest her. She pretended to be asleep, but after he left, would sneak to the bathroom, where she would wash her body and rinse her mouth, she said.

For years, the family kept the horror of the incidents a secret until, in late 1989, the girl, then 17, recounted details of the attacks to a counselor at Lake Catholic High School. Bensi conducted a lengthy criminal investigation at the same time the family was pursuing a civil lawsuit against Louis and the diocese.

"The family was just devastated by this," Bensi said. "They became so trusting and so believing in this guy that they just never suspected anything. That's what makes this so terrible. He preyed on people like this."

The lawsuit was settled in August. Terms of the agreement were kept confidential, but details of Louis' past sexual problems and the diocese's handling of complaints against him were laid out in an extensive court file.

Louis, in response to the lawsuit, admitted receiving back rubs from the girl, swimming with her, sitting her on his lap and lying in bed with her while she remained clothed and covered.

He denied engaging in any inappropriate or criminal sexual contact with the girl.

Calls placed to Louis' home in Maryland were not returned this week. He has pleaded not guilty to four counts of rape, four counts of felonious sexual penetration and six counts of gross sexual imposition.

At issue in the civil lawsuit was how aware Bishop Anthony Pilla and diocesan authorities were of Louis' alleged sexual activities. In 1980, a priest ordered Louis to seek psychiatric treatment for "emotional problems."

And as recently as 1988, diocesan officials counseled Louis to be careful around children. A question remains whether the psychiatrist reported the priest's progress to the diocese.

"The diocese was aware all along of Louis' sexual appetite for children, and was the reason for the non-parish assignment" in 1977, the family's lawyer, John J. Ricotta, stated in the lawsuit.

Feliciano denies the claim.

The lawsuit points out, however, that in 1981, the pastor of All Saints of St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Mentor reprimanded Louis for patting a young girl on the behind and for arriving unannounced at the home of a divorced woman with a young daughter. Also, the principal of the parish school, located in Wickliffe, spoke with Louis about complaints from parents regarding inappropriate contact with children, the lawsuit says.

A short time later, Michael Coyne, president of the East Side Irish American Club, asked Louis to resign as the club's chaplain.

"There was a lot of disenchantment with him," Coyne said. "The mothers thought he was overly friendly with their little girls. We kept it in-house."

Coyne added, though: "Father Marty did a lot of good, too. People liked him."

Bensi had been investigating Louis for months before he realized he knew him. Louis had spent time with the detective's own children years before while they were students at St. Robert's School in Euclid, he said.

Bensi said he had received about 20 phone calls regarding Louis since the indictment was filed Nov. 5. Some have been from parents who support the priest and vouch for his good conduct around their children. Others, though, have been reports from parents or women now in their late teens or early 20s who contend that the priest touched them in inappropriate ways. But they would prefer to suppress the old memories than press charges.

Most of the time, Bensi said, the mothers were able to whisk their daughters away from Louis before the relationships progressed to the extent of the Euclid girl's.

One woman told Bensi that in 1982, she saw Louis fondling her 10-year-old daughter's breast.

She claims to have reported the incident to the diocese, and was told "appropriate action" would be taken.

Another woman, now 18 and living in Dallas, had a similar experience, but never reported it to authorities, Bensi said.

"He came into contact with so many families, and always seemed to use the same M.O.," Bensi said. "He would single out one girl from the rest and concentrate on her. He was always being seen with little girls."

Not according to Art Rice.

In 1985, Rice's late wife, Virginia, was 42 and had suffered a series of diabetes-related strokes that left her incapacitated in Meridia Euclid Hospital. Although she couldn't speak, Rice said his wife made it clear to him through her sounds of distress and by play-acting that the chaplain, Louis, had fondled her breasts.

Rice was livid. In a face-to-face meeting with his wife, Louis, the former hospital president and a priest named "Father Jim," Rice threatened Louis.

"You keep that S.O.B. away from here or I'll break his neck," Rice, of Cleveland, recalled saying.

But nothing happened until a few days later, when another female patient accused Louis of touching her, and several nurses complained that the priest had made lewd comments to them.

Louis was transferred immediately to St. John and West Shore Hospital. Diocese records reflect the nurses' complaints, but contain nothing about the alleged molestations, Feliciano said. The hospital has no records of any of the incidents, a spokeswoman said.

Rice decided not to complain to police.

"These are priests," he said last week. "You don't file police reports against priests. And I didn't want to cause problems with my wife, maybe get her kicked out of the hospital."

Virginia Rice died in 1988.

Pedophilia in the priesthood has received national attention in recent years as more victims speak out and the church takes a more open and tough attitude toward dealing with offenders.

Since 1985, the Diocese of Cleveland has had a strict policy against any kind of sexual harassment, Feliciano said.

Nationally, an average of 40 priests a year for the past 10 years have been identified as child abusers, according to Jason Berry, author of a new book on the subject, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation."

There are 43,000 active priests in the United States.

Confronted with evidence of pedophilia in the past, bishops would often close ranks and protect the abusers by transferring them to another assignment rather than getting them help, Berry said. He credits the new policies to expensive court litigation and victim-sensitive media coverage.

"To their credit, I believe the bishops have begun to see that they can't react as they did in the past and get away with it," Berry said. "They're making an attempt now to reach out and make a commitment to combating this problem."

Louis' accuser and the detective who investigated him are satisfied with the results of the case so far. They're hoping it doesn't go to trial. If it does, and Louis is convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

"I saw her testify to the grand jury," Bensi said of the accuser, now a student at an Ohio University. "She's a strong young lady, but I don't want to see her have to go through that again.

"She wants him in a position where he'll never be able to victimize anyone ever, and I think she accomplished that," Bensi said.

 
 

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