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  Priest's Quick Suspension Signals a New Openness;
Diocesan Aide Cites 'The Tenor of the Times' Diocese Quickly Suspends Priest Accused of Abuse

By Amanda Garrett, David Briggs and Robert L. Smith
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio]
March 30, 2002

The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, accused of being slow and furtive in handling sex-abuse cases, moved swiftly and very publicly this week to suspend a 40-year veteran of the priesthood.

One day after hearing a single allegation that he abused a schoolgirl three decades ago, the diocese relieved the Rev. Raymond Bartnikowski of his duties as pastor of St. Victor parish in Richfield on Holy Thursday.

In an extraordinary effort to appear to be forthright, the diocese immediately issued a press release and dispatched its personnel director to announce the news to Bartnikowski's stunned parishioners. The announcement is to be repeated at every service during the Easter weekend. The swift, public announcement represents an expanded effort by the diocese to respond to alleged abuse by clergy - the subject of a growing scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church.

"Because of the tenor of the times, we decided to go to a broader reach of the public," said Robert Tayek, diocesan communications director.

In the past, the diocese has openly discussed clergy abuse allegations, but usually just in the affected parishes, Tayek said. With diocesan offices closed for Good Friday, Tayek said he could not give specific examples of where such discussions have occurred.

But the Bartnikowski response does not represent a change in the diocesan policy, he said.

That policy, updated in 1992, requires an accused cleric to be relieved of pastoral responsibilities and to undergo psychological evaluation while allegations are investigated.

The policy does not mention public disclosure.

After learning of the allegation, Bartnikowski voluntarily accepted administrative leave, said the Rev. Lawrence Jurcak, diocesan director of personnel. It was the first such allegation against Bartnikowski since he was ordained in 1963, Jurcak said.

The diocese will continue to pay Bartnikowski while police and the diocese conduct separate investigations. But Bartnikowski was required to move out of the rectory at St. Victor. Jurcak declined to say where he was.

Bartnikowski could not be reached for comment.

"I think the people at St. Victor are shocked," said Jurcak, who is filling in for Bartnikowski until a substitute can be found. Only about 50 attended St. Victor's morning services on Good Friday, down from about 400 the night before.

"They think [Bartnikowski] is a good priest, that he is a good pastor and that he is innocent until proven guilty," Jurcak said.

Details of the allegation and the woman's reasons for coming forward 35 years later are unclear. According to diocesan officials and police, the allegation surfaced this way: Earlier this week, a Lake County woman told the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services that Bartnikowski had abused her when she was a 12-year-old student at St. Monica's grade school in Garfield Heights.

On Wednesday, the county agency notified diocesan officials, who immediately set up a Thursday meeting with Bartnikowski.

At the meeting, they told the priest of the still-unsubstantiated allegation, named the woman who made it and said they would call police. Within hours, the diocese notified local media and Bartnikowski's congregation.

The diocese notified Garfield Heights police yesterday morning, although few details were shared. The diocese didn't even specify whether the allegation involved sex, said Detective Sgt. Donald Cook.

"We really haven't even gotten started on it yet," Cook said yesterday. The woman had not filed a complaint, he said, and investigators had not spoken with her or Bartnikowski.

News of the allegation angered, confused and worried many in the local Catholic community, already reeling from the broadening national scandal involving clergy sexual abuse.

Bartnikowski married five of Ginny Piotrowski's six children during the 1970s and 1980s, when he was assigned to Sacred Heart of Jesus parish near Slavic Village.

"He was good to my family. I can't believe this of him," Piotrowski said yesterday. "But I think [the diocese] has to do something. They just can't sweep these sorts of things under the rug."

Hundreds of Cleveland-area Catholics knew Bartnikowski only as "Father Ray."

They say the salt-and-pepper-haired priest with the gentle style prayed for hours at their hospital bedsides, patiently heard their confessions, married and buried their loved ones and always urged parishioners to rely on faith in times of crisis.

Ralph Konkowski befriended the priest at St. Monica during the 1960s and 1970s, where he helped lead a large number of Polish-Americans through Vatican II.

Konkowski describes Bartnikowski with the Polish word "pobozny."

"It means Godlike. Great and simple," Konkowski said. "He'd go to the lepers when no one else would."

He might believe similar allegations against some other priests, Konkowski said.

"But not Father Ray. I can't in my wildest imagination think he could be involved in this kind of thing."

 
 

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