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  Holy Family Prays, Keeps Vigil
Abuse Allegations about Beloved Priest Rock Parish

By Carol Biliczky
Akron Beacon Journal [Ohio]
April 18, 2002

Call it crippling bad luck. Call it a coincidence. No matter, Holy Family parish is struggling with it.

Not only has the church's pastor, the Rev. Joseph Lieberth, been placed on administrative leave for an alleged incident with a 17-year-old boy before he came to Holy Family, but two other Catholic priests once assigned to the parish have been identified by the Diocese of Cleveland as having been accused of sexual abuse of a minor.

That means this 10,000-member parish -- the second largest in Summit County -- has been one of the hardest hit by the growing Catholic clergy scandal.

The allegations have rocked Holy Family. Counselors have come in to help students, staff members and families cope. Adults and children alike have penned words of good will to Lieberth.

"They (parishioners) are in mourning," said the Rev. Thomas Dragga, president of Borromeo Seminary College in Wickliffe, who has temporarily assumed the duty as pastor at Holy Family. "This is a loss."

Within the last month, Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla has put 11 diocesan priests on administrative leave while the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office reviews church files for possible criminal charges relating to allegations of abuse. The diocese released no details about where and when the alleged abuse incidents took place.

One of those men on leave is the 60-year-old Lieberth; another is the Rev. Russell J. Banner, suspended as pastor at Annunciation church in Cleveland. Banner served at Holy Family from 1975 to 1979.

Pilla also has identified 13 other priests no longer in active ministry because of past allegations of abuse of minors.

In that group is William McCool, who was at the Stow parish from 1973 to 1979 and served in other parishes before leaving the priesthood two years ago.

Many Holy Family parishioners didn't know McCool or Banner, because they served at the church so long ago. But they have unyielding opinions about Lieberth, the man they've come to call "Father Joe." He has both won their hearts and put them off.

Since joining Holy Family a dozen years ago as associate pastor, he has earned a reputation as an active cleric, a terrific administrator who has tackled many jobs that had gotten away from his ailing predecessor, the Rev. Edward Szabo, who died in 1999.

"Father Joe's been a good support for us," said Debbie Gatto, president of the Parents Club for Holy Family School, with 740 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. "He's like one of us."

Added school principal Susan Jelenic: "He's done a lot to keep our school afloat. I've been in Catholic schools since 1967, and there are not many fathers who would sit down and formulate a school discipline policy, but he rolled up his sleeves and worked with us."

Some see the attention focused on sexual abuse by Catholic priests as excessive -- as if clerics of other faiths never set a foot wrong.

"I'm not saying it should have been kept quiet," said Joanne Dalsanto, a mother of three. "But part of me has to really feel that the Catholic church is being singled out. Some people might call it a witch hunt."

She and others point out that they don't even know what Lieberth allegedly did -- no details have been released.

"He's innocent until he's proven guilty," said staunch supporter Annette McGuinness. "I can't stand in judgment."

But others in the parish are upset that Lieberth wasn't more upfront about his situation. After Sunday Mass on the day before he was placed on leave by the diocese, Lieberth expressed his sorrow to parishioners about priest abuse in general, without saying a word about his own situation.

"I thought it was a nice, healing type of talk," recalled Susan Ritz, who joined Holy Family just six weeks ago because of the good things she heard about the parish. "People clapped when he was done. Afterward, he stood outside and shook hands."

When she heard the news the next day, though, she was shocked:

"Then it seemed like his talk was a little misleading," she said. "He should have come out and said, 'I'm being investigated.' "

That admission came in a note to his staff members when the suspension was announced. Lieberth called the incident involving a 17-year-old boy nearly 16 years earlier "isolated" and said that, after apologizing to the boy and his family and after extended counseling and assessment, he was assigned to Stow.

Lieberth did not apologize in the letter -- he simply laid out the facts and asked the staff to pray for him.

Many parishioners question whether a priest with an abuse allegation in his past should have been sent to a parish with such a large number of children.

"I believe in forgiveness," said mother of eight Cathy McCausland, "but what right did Bishop Pilla have to take a risk with my children? It sounds like they were sitting back here waiting to see if there were any complaints."

Some parishioners said they wrote to Pilla when Lieberth was being considered for the pastor's top job three years ago. They complained that Lieberth was too liberal, too distant with children and that he didn't follow the church's norms.

Jeannine Wypasek said that as an associate pastor, Lieberth didn't, as his predecessors did, regularly present Catholic doctrine in sex education classes. She said he only went to one class that each of her daughters took.

"He was almost overcautious" toward children, she said. "He didn't ask them what movies they saw or what sports teams they liked. I understand that now, but I didn't then."

Where all this leaves the parish is unclear. But leaders like Jelenic are striving to keep daily life on an even keel.

"Our goal is to move quickly forward," the school principal said.

She has rebuffed a suggestion to temporarily close the school. She still held a pizza party for older students. She will not allow media on the grounds.

But no one knows what to do next.

"Since it happened so many years ago, what are we supposed to do about it now?" Dalsanto asked. "He's a wonderful, upstanding, very, very proud man. I'm sure he's devastated."

 
 

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