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  Diocese Suspends 9 More Priests

By James F. McCarty and David Briggs
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio]
April 9, 2002

The Cleveland Catholic Diocese yesterday announced the suspension of nine more priests from their ministries pending a criminal investigation by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office into years-old allegations of child sexual abuse.

Diocesan officials also released the names of 12 retired or former priests who had been removed from their duties because of allegations of child sex abuse.

The list of newly suspended priests includes the Rev. Donald Brickman, the diocese's vicar of justice, and three pastors: the Rev. Joseph Lieberth of Holy Family Parish in Stow, the Rev. Russell Banner of Annunciation Parish in Cleveland's West Park neighborhood and the Rev. Joseph Labbe of Holy Angels Parish in Bainbridge Township.

All of the suspended priests were required to move out of their church residences, although they will continue to receive salaries and benefits. Their ministries are on hold until the criminal review is completed.

Prosecutor William Mason issued a grand jury subpoena on Friday, demanding that the diocese turn over all records dealing with allegations of sexual abuse against any priest or diocesan employee.

"They have indicated they will be forthright and will turn over all of the information that we requested by the end of the week," Mason said.

Mason said he was surprised by yesterday's release of names.

The release came four days after a Plain Dealer reporter asked for an interview with Bishop Anthony Pilla about the diocese's handling of previously undisclosed abuse allegations against three of the priests on the new suspension list.

Alleged victims of sexual abuse generally have six years after turning 18 to ask that criminal charges be brought against an abuser.

But since a revision of state law in 1993, Mason said, alleged victims who say they have recovered repressed memories of attacks have as long as 20 years to press charges.

Most of the newly suspended priests were "very unsettled" by the renewed investigations, diocesan spokesman Robert Tayek said yesterday. All nine were evaluated and treated at the time the allegations surfaced, he said, and all were returned to active ministry.

"Many had been back in ministry for years," Tayek said. Having the allegations resurface "makes their lives very difficult."

A 10th active priest, the Rev. Raymond Bartnikowski, pastor of St. Victor Church in Richfield, was suspended two weeks ago after an alleged victim said he abused her at a Garfield Heights parish in the late 1960s.

Last Thursday, the Rev. Donald Rooney, associate pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Parma, shot himself after a woman told diocesan officials that Rooney abused her in 1980 at a parish in Wadsworth. His funeral was scheduled for this morning.

Announcements of the suspensions will be printed in church bulletins this weekend, cautioning that a suspension "does not carry with it a new presumption of guilt."

During his sermon last Sunday, Lieberth apologized for the shame that sexually abusive priests have brought on the church, according to parishioners in attendance. But he made no reference to his own circumstance.

"He seemed very upset," recalled Evonn Welton of Stow.

Lieberth announced his suspension to a stunned staff at Holy Family School yesterday morning, said Susan Jelenic, the school's principal.

"It came as a shock and surprise to all of us," she said. "He was an outstanding pastor and had done so much."

Shortly before his arrival at Holy Family 12 years ago, Lieberth was accused of sexually abusing the teenage son of a church deacon, according to a well-placed diocesan source - a claim that led to a confidential settlement with the alleged victim.

Tayek said yesterday that he doesn't know how many of the suspended priests figured in confidential settlements. Nor did he know how many alleged victims were affected.

Brickman, as head of the Church Tribunal, is one of the highest-ranking priests in the diocese.

Two sources familiar with diocesan handling of abuse allegations said Brickman's eventual promotion despite serious allegations of sexual abuse in the late 1980s sent a bad message to both clergy and abuse victims.

"I'm kind of wondering how does it sit with the victims" to have him in charge of the church court? one source said.

Yesterday, a somber mood hung over Holy Angels Parish, where Labbe oversaw the opening of a new $4 million church three years ago.

"We're just trying to carry on," Sister Susan Javorek said.

Labbe previously served as pastor of St. Joseph's Parish in Avon Lake, where during the mid-1980s several teenage boys accused him of sexually abusing them, according to a well-placed diocesan source.

Banner, well-known for his involvement in social-justice and peace issues, was a key player in pushing for a living-wage ordinance in Cleveland, said John Ryan, executive secretary of the Cleveland AFL-CIO Federation of Labor.

"Father Banner's been an incredibly supportive person and priest on behalf of workers' rights," Ryan said. "This shakes me."

Tayek said yesterday's announcement was made "on the basis of full disclosure," because the diocese "didn't want to look like it was withholding anything."

In a private letter sent to priests yesterday, Pilla wrote that he shares their grief "over this terrible circumstance in the life of our church."

The bishop said he is committed to ministry "with compassion for the whole church, for the broken and injured, and in compliance with the call of justice and the obligation of the law."

He also vowed to give "every possible consideration to protect the dignity and privacy of each victim, family and priest involved."

Tayek said Pilla ordered diocesan staff to review all cases of alleged clergy sex abuse two weeks ago - about the time former Cleveland City Services Director William Denihan was named to head a commission to evaluate diocesan policies.

Mason's subpoena on Friday "accelerated" the process, Tayek said.

Retired, former priests

The Cleveland Diocese yesterday named 12 retired or former priests who are no longer in active ministry because of allegations of abuse of minors. Their names - and ages, where available in electronic records - are:

George Bailey
Allen Bruening, 74
Thomas Burg, 63
Neil Conway, 65
Leonard Ferrante
Martin Louis, 63
Thomas Luckay, 63
William McCool
James Mulica
Edward Rupp
Ronald Tomicky, 57
Dennis Wirks, 58.

Abuse allegations involving Bruening, Conway, Louis, Mulica and Rupp had been reported earlier. The disclosure of allegations against the seven others is new.

Facing child-abuse investigation

The nine priests newly suspended by the Cleveland Diocese because of allegations of child sexual abuse, their ages and their most recent assignments:

Rev. Russell J. Banner, 64, pastor at Annunciation Church, Cleveland
Rev. Gary D. Berthiaume, 60, Cenacle Retreat House, Warrenville, Ill.
Rev. Donald P. Brickman, 47, Judicial Vicar-Tribunal, Cleveland Diocese
Rev. Joseph F. Brodnick, 58, chaplain at St. Joseph's Hospital, Elmira, N.Y.
Rev. Joseph P. Labbe, 52, pastor at Holy Angels Church, Bainbridge Township
Rev. Joseph J. Lang, 63, Sacred Heart Parish, Terrace, British Columbia
Rev. Joseph J. Lieberth, 60, pastor at Holy Family Church, Stow
Rev. Anthony Rebol, 74, pastor emeritus St. Lawrence Church, Cleveland
Rev. Joseph A. Romansky, 50, chaplain St. Augustine Manor, Cleveland.

 
 

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