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  'All I Wanted Was an Apology' Accusers Say the Response They Desire Most - an Expression of Sorrow by the Diocese for Abuses - Is Rarely Offered

By David Briggs and James F. McCarty
Plain Dealer [Cleveland Ohio]
March 11, 2002

The Cost of Abuse

In Louisiana, Catholic Bishop Harry Flynn met with victims of clergy sexual abuse to personally apologize and organized a special retreat for their parents.

In Oregon, as part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by 23 former altar boys who were molested by a priest, Archbishop John Vlazny issued a public apology to victims that was read from every pulpit in the diocese at Sunday Mass.

Vlazny also offered a healing service for any victim or family member who wanted one.

But in Northeast Ohio, men and women who say they were sexually abused as children by priests or other church employees say they have been waiting in vain for anything like that kind of pastoral response from the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.

Many, like 30-year-old Frank (not his real name), say that what they most crave - a simple apology - has been denied them.

Yet, psychiatrists, victim advocates and child-abuse experts - both inside and outside the church - are saying with increasing urgency that that's precisely the kind of direct, honest response that abuse victims require in order to heal spiritually and psychologically from such a devastating trauma.

Despite concerns about opening the church to huge monetary claims - hardly a trivial matter, given reports of massive settlements elsewhere - it may also provide the best insurance the church can find, these experts say. That's because the victim who feels spurned and neglected is the one most likely to seek justice in the courts.

"All I wanted was an apology," said Frank, underscoring the point. "I would be very happy with that, believe you me."

Frank wound up suing the Cleveland Diocese in 1999, saying that memories had been dislodged that his pastor, the Rev. Allen Bruening, had sexually abused Frank while he was a sixth-grader at Ascension School in Cleveland in 1984.

Bruening was forced to resign from his Ascension assignment shortly afterward - on the heels of sexual-abuse complaints from another family. But Bruening and the diocese denied in court filings that Frank was a victim.

In fact, Frank's lawsuit said, it was 1998 before he directly confronted his own memories of the alleged abuse - which included being fondled in a motel swimming pool on several outings with Bruening and during showers he said he was ordered to take with his pastor.

Frank was in his mid-20s when he finally told his parents, and then, in an impassioned letter to Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla, asked his church to at least acknowledge his suffering.

Frank said that what he got back read like a form letter from the legal affairs department. While expressing concern about his allegations, the church's letter never mentioned that the diocese had acknowledged fielding sexual-abuse allegations about Bruening at least 15 years before Frank first ran into him in elementary school.

"All I wanted was someone to say, 'I'm sorry, I hurt you,' " Frank said recently. "But they're not even sorry about it."

Auxiliary Bishop A. James Quinn said last week that it would be difficult to apologize in Frank's case because Bruening denies the abuse. But Quinn said the diocese would welcome hearing from Frank if he feels he needs counseling.

Diocesan officials said the church offers counseling in all abuse cases it considers reasonable - even when the alleged victims have sued.

In a letter sent to all diocesan churches last week, Pilla said, "It is my desire that the church be present in whatever way possible to those who have suffered such abuse."

A second abuse?

A review of court cases and interviews with alleged and confirmed clergy-abuse victims paints a very different picture.

In an apparent effort to protect its public image or its treasury - or both - the Cleveland Diocese has been loath to acknowledge responsibility for what is a well-documented national and international problem, opting instead to turn a frosty legal shoulder to those seeking redress.

But critics say the danger of using such tactics is that the church winds up not only revictimizing some victims, but also neglecting its fundamental spiritual mission of ministering to its traumatized sons and daughters.

And the hardball legal approach, some say, may actually increase the church's potential financial liability.

When the church will not acknowledge the abuse or apologize, the victims perceive it as a second abuse, said the Rev. Canice Connors, former director of the St. Luke Institute - a treatment center for priests in Maryland - and a consultant on the issue to U.S. bishops.

"That's when the anger really gets intensified," Connors said. "That's where it's moved into adjudication."

Michael Curran, an alleged victim, agrees.

"All I wanted from them was an apology, and I would have left it alone," said Curran, 42, who sued the Cleveland Diocese in 1993. "But they wouldn't give it to me."

Belying a casual, urbane air, the handsome Curran says he still suffers panic attacks so severe that he has gone to the emergency room, and he often finds himself nervous about simply leaving the safety of his Cleveland Heights home.

"I just feel like an ugly, ugly person," he said. "I look like the Elephant Man."

Curran went to court, saying in documents that he confronted long-buried memories of being repeatedly sexually abused by a teacher 20 years earlier at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls.

He was a 14-year-old freshman when Brother Howard McDonough coerced him into having sex in his office, Curran said in an interview, while assuring the youth that God was smiling on the relationship.

The diocese, McDonough and the brother's Jesuit order denied that the abuse occurred. But even if the teenager was seduced by his teacher, a lawyer for the school and the Jesuits argued in court filings, a "key issue" would be "Was it voluntary?"

Curran's case was eventually dismissed - because too much time had elapsed since the alleged abuse.

But court records, including an affidavit from another former student and a 1973 memo from Walsh's principal, indicate that McDonough had been accused of sexual abuse by other Walsh students at the time; that school officials were aware of allegations that put the brother "in a very embarrassing and compromising position"; and that they had decided to quietly transfer McDonough out of the area.

But school officials postponed the move for a month because a sudden departure "would raise many questions among the students and tend to confirm things being circulated already," the principal's memo said.

Meanwhile, Curran said, his church has left him "to rot in the wind."

"They belittled me and kept calling me a liar," he said. "They made me feel like a piece of crap.

"If they had just apologized to me, this might not have gone on for 10 years," Curran said. "I lost the last 12 years of my life."

McDonough could not be reached.

Slow to change

Two decades ago, with the Catholic Church in America still in deep denial about clergy sexual abuse, the legal cold shoulder was the near-universal response of dioceses confronted with such allegations, said Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who has been involved in more than 400 clergy-abuse cases nationwide.

Through the early 1990s, even sexual abuse of teenage boys was largely dismissed inside the church as a harmless frolic or another human foible, what one former high-ranking church official described as "the moral equivalent of a priest slipping up with a woman or going to a brothel."

In many cases, church officials say, the priest would apologize, promise never to do it again and be offered forgiveness - and, in some cases, a new assignment - by his superiors.

But the stakes were raised dramatically in 1984, when accusations exploded in the national media that former priest Gilbert Gauthe had fondled, assaulted and sodomized dozens of boys in Lafayette, La.

Although not always on the same scale, clergy-abuse scandals erupted coast to coast, including in Cleveland, in the years that followed.

By 1993, a U.S. church-sponsored panel recommended the establishment of independent review boards to oversee the church's handling of such allegations and bans to keep abusive priests from working with youngsters again.

The panel also urged the church to pay for mental health costs of victims and, when a child-abuse charge was substantiated, to seek out others who may have been hurt, to minister to their needs.

With more recent scandals in the United States and abroad, even Pope John Paul II - who has tended to accuse the American media of sensationalizing the issue - has acknowledged that clergy pedophilia "has caused great suffering and spiritual harm to the victims."

And a consensus has started to build among church experts that the time has long since come to start dealing openly and honestly with the problem.

The first responsibility of the Catholic Church is to act like a church and not a corporation, these experts say.

"I would advise the church they need to remember their lawyers are working for them. They're not working for their lawyers," said Dr. Frederick Berlin, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University and a consultant on sex abuse to the U.S. Catholic bishops. "The church needs to be church. They need to express condolences."

After a slow start in putting words to practice, many dioceses seem to have outpaced Cleveland in establishing policies and procedures that appear to do just that.

Finally, moving forward

In Minneapolis, where Flynn is now archbishop, the church is actively seeking out victims. A new policy, bolstered by brochures and appeals from the pulpit, encourages abused people to come forward and assigns an advocate to help them.

In Portland, Maine, Bishop Joseph Gerry required priests with a history of sexual abuse to fully inform their congregations.

In New Hampshire last month, the church gave prosecutors the names of 14 priests accused of molesting children.

In the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., church authorities dismissed about 10 percent of diocesan priests in the 1990s for allegations of sexual misconduct - a move that, while applauded by alleged victims, has left others wondering if priests might now be considered guilty until proven innocent.

And in Boston, where the church is being wracked by one of the most sensational clergy-abuse scandals ever, the embattled Cardinal Bernard Law in January established a "zero tolerance" policy forbidding any priest guilty of sexually abusing a minor from holding any position in the church. Since then, he has turned over to authorities the names of nearly 90 other alleged abusers.

The Boston Archdiocese, facing up to $30 million in tentative settlements of dozens of lawsuits, and bracing for what lawyers say could be hundreds more suits, is one of several American dioceses now considering the sale of church property to settle sex-abuse cases - to avoid the necessity of dipping into the Sunday collection plate.

Church settlements in the tens of millions of dollars are no longer rare, said Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a reality that has made it far more difficult for Catholic dioceses to successfully resolve abuse cases.

But as real as the financial risks have become, Chopko said, the church's religious mandate must take precedence.

Apologizing to victims to help them heal is not only the right thing to do, Chopko said, but it also can be done without seriously affecting the church's financial liability.

'Acknowledge the hurt'

That's especially true in places like Ohio, where a tight statute of limitations already makes it difficult for abuse victims to prevail in court.

"The right thing to do is to acknowledge the hurt," Chopko said, "and to say that we're sorry for this."

Although he acknowledged that alleged victims might not hear it, Auxiliary Bishop Quinn said the diocese always apologizes when someone claims he or she was abused by a priest. But when the allegations are disputed, even that can be problematic, he said, especially when lawyers get involved.

"Once you have an attorney, it's an adversarial kind of relationship," Quinn said. "I think the bishop is always going to be concerned about stepping in and talking to any client who is represented by an attorney. The potential for misunderstanding is enormous."

A review of 20 sexual-abuse lawsuits filed against the Diocese of Cleveland since the mid-'80s - and interviews with many of the alleged victims - suggests that heartfelt apologies from the church have been hard to come by.

The Cleveland church has not been idle in the face of the growing national scandal.

After its brush with a clergy-abuse furor in the late 1980s, the Cleveland Diocese took several steps to address the issue.

For instance, the diocese required that all allegations or suspicions of clergy child abuse be reported to police or the county's children services board. The policy also required the accused priest to be removed from his parish assignment during the investigation and sent to treatment if necessary.

Any reassignment would be made only after consulting with medical professionals, with the intent not to assign a diagnosed pedophile to a ministry with access to children.

Abuse victims were also to be provided counseling as deemed appropriate by church authorities.

"The first thing we think about is the child," Quinn said last week. "I would say the need to help the child is foremost, and next is the truth of the claim."

Quinn also said the diocese is "proactive" on the issue and has developed programs to educate teachers and schoolchildren on how to recognize and report signs of abuse.

But many alleged victims say the Cleveland Diocese has fallen short in the compassion department. And that shortcoming, they say, has added considerable insult to the injuries they say they suffered at the hands of Northeast Ohio's wayward priests.

Nowhere to turn

A brand-new church with a full-bath marble baptismal font in the foyer is a sign of the vitality of St. Joseph Church, overlooking Lake Road in rapidly growing Avon Lake.

But in homes in and around the bustling community, several now-middle-age women who say they were sexually assaulted by St. Joseph's founding pastor continue to grapple alone with their suffering.

(SEE CORRECTION NOTE)Eight women filed suit nine years ago against the Cleveland Diocese, saying that as school girls, from 1955 through 1976, they were repeatedly raped and abused by the Rev. Carl Wernet, who died in 1980.

In court papers, their lawyers said 21 more men and women came forward with assertions that they also were abused by Wernet.

The priest regularly called the 8- , 9- and 10-year-olds out of their parochial school classrooms to meet his sexual needs, the women said in interviews and court filings. Afterward, he gave them gifts such as holy books and prayer cards as symbols of his gratitude.

One said Wernet molested her in his car, after inviting her inside to stay warm while waiting for the bus on winter days.

Another said Wernet gave her a blue crystal rosary after raping her in the sacristy of the parish's old brick church when she was in the fourth grade. She said the pastor warned her she would go to hell if she told anyone.

One of the women, who said that memories of Wernet's alleged abuse have invaded every day of her life since, said in court documents that she has suffered two nervous breakdowns and has attempted suicide.

After church lawyers battled the women for five years over exactly when they remembered the abuse and how quickly they reported it, the diocese prevailed in the case in 1998, when the lawsuit was dismissed.

Again, as with so many other such suits, the case ran aground not on the truth or falsity of the allegations - which were never officially adjudicated - but because the statute of limitations had expired.

To this day, Wernet's accusers say, the diocese has never acknowledged their pain, much less apologized to them or reached out to the St. Joseph community to see if other victims might need help.

One of the women, Linda Toth, said that when she finally mustered the nerve to approach diocesan officials about the abuse in 1989, she was referred to a parish priest, who told her to keep her mouth shut because she "had already shamed my family enough."

Now 51, Toth said she and others like her feel abandoned by the church they once loved.

"We don't have a safe place to go," she said. "We're wandering souls."

As for sexual abuse itself, Pilla acknowledged that the offense becomes much more "heinous" when the victimizer is a priest. "A child's ability to trust is shattered by such abuse, and self-esteem is damaged," he wrote last week in his letter to churches. "It further affects a victim's relationship to the church."

Precisely how many such wandering souls are out there, and how badly wounded they might be, is anybody's guess.

Three years ago, following an internal study for U.S. bishops, researchers concluded that from 2 percent to 5 percent of Catholic priests are likely to have sexually abused minors, said Connors, the bishops' consultant, who is familiar with the research.

But while the study confirmed that clergy sex abuse is not exclusively a Catholic problem - the likely abuse rates are similar to those in mainline Protestant churches, Connors said, and appear lower than in some fundamentalist groups - it also raised the possibility of substantial numbers of Catholic victims.

In the Cleveland Diocese, for instance, where church records show that more than 1,500 priests have served at one time or another since 1970, extrapolations from that study suggest that from 30 to 75 clerics in Northeast Ohio may have abused minors.

Only 10 have been publicly accused over the last 15 years - nine in lawsuits and one in media reports of a settlement outside court.

Quinn estimated that serious allegations of child sex abuse have been made against about 20 priests in the Diocese of Cleveland in the last 30 years. He said he believes the priests in three of those cases were falsely accused. But he would identify only one - the Rev. Anthony Muzic, a former pastor at St. Brendan Church in North Olmsted.

Muzic was accused of molesting a former altar boy in 1965 and 1966 after plying him with communion wine. Quinn said last week that a diocesan investigation indicated those charges were untrue.

In a 1995 deposition in a clergy sex-abuse case, Quinn said he was not personally familiar with any false allegations.

Based on years of experience treating abusive priests, Leslie Lothstein, clinical psychology director of a treatment center in Hartford, Conn., says some abusers target as many as 50 victims in a career, but most abuse from five to 10. Those with more than 100 alleged victims, like Boston's John Geoghan, are rare, Lothstein said.

If that research holds true here, as many as several hundred - and possibly a few thousand - victims may be struggling to cope with the aftermath of clergy abuse in the Cleveland Diocese.

That's not counting parents who load themselves with guilt for trusting abusive priests, and spouses and siblings trying to help their loved ones deal with the psychological and behavioral problems that often result.

Experts say the psychic damage tends to be worse with clergy abuse.

With a perpetrator set up in church teaching as the "authentic representative and messenger" of Christ on Earth, the victim is far more likely to conclude that he or she was to blame for the abuse, aggravating the damage.

In those cases, "it's not just abuse," said psychiatrist Berlin. "It's abuse of a sacred trust. So it's much more deeply felt."

How many of the victims will ever come forward is a matter of guesswork.

A review of 500 studies of child sexual abuse found that about half of long-term abuse victims will suffer long-term mental health problems.

Most people who have been abused are loath to consider themselves victims, said David Clohessy, president of Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

"We're like everybody else. We'd like to believe this isn't as bad as it seems," Clohessy said. "OK, this terrible thing happened to me, but I'm beyond it now.

"Only after failed marriages, bouts with substance abuse, job struggles, over and over again, do we look within and say maybe it had something to do with childhood trauma."

Of those who recognize their problem and come forward, either to get counseling or a lawyer, research shows that most are unable to do so until well into adulthood, after the passing decades have put a safer distance between them and the abuse.

But by then, because of statutes of limitations, it's often too late to sue successfully - unless the victim can show that the memory of the abuse was "repressed," in which case the legal clock for suing doesn't start ticking until the memory is somehow "recovered."

Establishing a precise date for the "recovered" memory has proved to be a tough legal task.

Still, in the era of multimillion-dollar settlements, the prospect of possibly hundreds of "repressed" memory abuse cases percolating beneath the surface in Northeast Ohio - some proportion of which could suddenly blossom into full-blown lawsuits at any time with at least a chance to succeed - is enough to give any church lawyer pause.

But some observers, both inside and outside its ranks, believe that the Catholic Church has actually aggravated its own legal liability with decades of denial and by treating victims as potential litigants instead of as suffering souls in need of help.

Suing the church, they say, is often the last thing an abuse victim wants to do. "People forget the fact that the folks who are abused are, almost without exception, the hard-core, loyal, die-hard Catholics," said Clohessy, the survivors' group president.

"We sue as an absolute, painful, desperate last resort."

It's by attacking them, or by refusing to acknowledge that they may have been wronged, that the church actually drives alleged victims to the courthouse, said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

That's the story heard time and again in interviews with those who have sued the church here.

Most say they were lifelong, loyal Catholics who would never have sought redress in the courts if their church had only ministered to them when they first came forward.

The fact that it didn't is as painful for many - and for their families - as the original abuse itself.

"They didn't even attempt to apologize or correct any mistake," said 26-year-old Joe Kotula, who sued the diocese last year, alleging that his grade-school principal sexually assaulted him from 1981 to 1988 in a locked room at St. Angela Merici School in Fairview Park.

The former principal, Vincent Gillespie, was fired in 1993. He died of an apparent heart attack in his Rocky River apartment in 1996, near a collection of child pornography.

"They still can't even do any little bit to make things right," said Kotula, who has been certified by the Social Security Administration as mentally disabled.

"There's not one little bit of acknowledgment of responsibility or trying to make things right at all. I just don't understand that."

The diocese has offered general apologies. Pilla added another last week in his letter to churches.

"To any and all who have ever been sexually abused as minors by a priest or anyone representing the church, I offer my deepest and most sincere apology," Pilla wrote.

But many alleged victims and their loved ones say that's not enough.

It's with obvious pain that Joe's mother, Mary Kotula, recalls sending her young son to school all those years with the trusting mother's faith that he was in good hands and with simple instructions to behave.

"Have a good day," she would tell young Joe, "and listen to your teacher."

But she is just as angry today with the church officials she has faced in trying to get him some help. In fact, she says she no longer considers herself a Catholic.

"I hate them as much as I do the people who did this to my kid," she said.

"They allow it to go on. They don't care who they hurt, how many people they hurt," she said. "Healing, to me, would be justice."

 
 

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