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  Victims Seek Change in Church

By Scott Westcott and Ed Palattella
Erie Times-News (PA)
April 28, 2002

Sean O'Hara and Sandy Fickenworth MacHutta don't know each another, but they have a lot in common.

Both are practicing Roman Catholics who regularly attend church.

Both claim that as children they were victims of sexual misconduct at the hands of priests who served in the Catholic Diocese of Erie.

Both now feel confused and angered by the response of church leaders to their specific claims and the growing sexual-abuse scandal rocking the American church from coast to coast.

Despite Pope John Paul II's recent words expressing "a profound sense of solidarity and concern'' for the victims and their families, O'Hara and MacHutta question the hierarchy's commitment to the victims of sexual abuse.

"They still aren't getting it,'' said MacHutta, 56, a resident of Dallas, Texas. She claims she was molested and raped by a now-deceased Erie priest when she was 12 and 13 years old and growing up in Erie. "They aren't realizing the hurt and damage done to our lives that it goes on and on. Forgiving is one thing. Forgetting is another.''

Erie Bishop Donald W. Trautman declined to be interviewed for this article, stating he has "already granted extensive interviews on clergy sexual abuse and the Diocese of Erie's policy on sexual abuse.'' Trautman on Thursday did release a statement in regard to victims.

"I am grieved by the plight of victims my heart bleeds for them,'' said Trautman, who was named bishop of the 13-county Diocese of Erie in 1990. "I strengthened the diocesan policy on clergy sex abuse in 1993 and amended it further later, specifically to safeguard and protect our children, our greatest asset.''

For O'Hara and MacHutta, the newfound push of bishops nationwide to protect children comes across as too little, too late. They say abusive priests stole the innocence of their childhoods and eroded their trust in the Catholic Church.

O'Hara and MacHutta remained silent for years about the allegations they say to this day deeply affect their lives and the lives of their family members. Both concede their cases are well beyond the statute of limitations for prosecution, and neither has sought a financial settlement with the diocese. But in the growing shadow of the sex-abuse scandal, they've opted to share their stories in hopes of sparking change both in the way the Catholic Church deals with victims of past abuse and how it might handle new cases.

O'Hara, 36, claims a priest serving in Crawford County molested him when he was 11 years old. He said he hopes the stories of those victimized by priests will force the church hierarchy to directly deal with the problem.

O'Hara still attends Catholic Mass regularly with his wife and two sons, ages 4 and 19 months. But he said he worries whether the church has adequate safeguards to prevent clerical sexual abuse.

"Now that I have two little boys, I want to make sure the chance for this occurring again is as small as possible,'' said O'Hara, a senior manager in a public relations and marketing firm in Pittsburgh. "You can't have this happening again and ruining people's lives.''

O'Hara believes the Roman Catholic Church should immediately defrock all priests who have credible allegations against them of sexual misconduct with minors. He says the names of those priests should be publicized for the protection of the community.

He advocates an "all world'' policy that any allegation or evidence of sexual misconduct with minors by priests be immediately turned over to law enforcement to determine if a crime was committed.

"The church is not and should never be above the law,'' O'Hara said. "Though that's exactly the approach they have used to allow these crimes to occur.''

That is the approach O'Hara believes the diocese used when he and his family brought their allegations of sexual abuse to church officials in 1984.

O'Hara said the Rev. Chester Gawronski molested him in 1977.

Several sources confirmed that Gawronski, who for many years served in the Meadville-Saegertown area, recently was removed or resigned from any ministry because of allegations of past sexual misconduct with minors. Trautman has said "a couple'' priests were removed because of sex abuse involving minors, but has declined to reveal their names.

Several attempts by the Erie Times-News to reach Gawronski were unsuccessful. He no longer resides at the rectory at St. Ann Catholic Church, 921 East Ave., which was listed as his residence in the Erie diocese's directory for 2001-02. His name has been removed from the diocesan Web site.

The diocese's directory had listed Gawronski as serving as the chaplain at Saint Mary's at Asbury Ridge, 4855 West Ridge Road, a home for the elderly. A priest at Saint Mary's confirmed Thursday that Gawronski stopped serving as chaplain there at the end of February.

Diocesan officials declined comment on Gawronski's status. They would not say where he can be contacted.

O'Hara is a former resident of Saegertown who served as an altar boy at St. Bernadette Mission, 222 Renner Lane in Saegertown. He claims Gawronski made sexual advances toward him during an overnight trip to a hunting cabin in the Oil City area.

O'Hara said he was showering when Gawronski entered the shower stall and started washing O'Hara's genitals. In another instance that weekend, he said, Gawronski attempted to molest him as they were swimming in a pool. O'Hara said he rejected Gawronski's advances, but remains deeply troubled by the encounters to this day.

O'Hara said nothing about the alleged incidents until seven years later, when he told his parents while they were on a family walk at Woodcock Dam. His parents, both devout Catholics at the time, were stunned.

"My heart fell out of my chest,'' said retired Lt. Col. Donald O'Hara, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who served as a Eucharistic minister and parish board member at St. Bernadette. "Here I was this macho military guy who believed so fervently in the Catholic Church and the priesthood.''

Donald O'Hara said he immediately reported the allegations to diocesan officials. He said they put him in contact with the Rev. Glenn Whitman, who at the time was working in the diocese's office of clergy personnel. Whitman addressed the O'Haras' complaints in an undated letter that Donald O'Hara said he received in 1984 or 1985. Whitman wrote, "The course of action we have mapped out will be helpful to Father Chet and will permit an avoidance of this difficulty in the future.''

The letter went on to urge O'Hara not to pursue the matter further, partly for the sake of his fellow parishioners at St. Bernadette. Gawronski was assigned there at the time.

"My only caution to you, both for Sean's sake and for Father Chet's, is to refrain from probing for any more information about past events as it may raise undue concern and attention on the part of people who aren't involved,'' the letter read. "You were concerned about getting that 'small parish all excited' and perhaps doing your own inquiries may bring about what you most want to avoid.''

Whitman is now the pastor at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Girard. He could not be reached for comment.

O'Hara said he was told by diocesan officials that Gawronski had been sent to a medical center in Maryland for evaluation and counseling. The O'Haras also were told Gawronski would be placed in restricted ministry in which he would not have contact with children.

Earlier this year, as the sex-abuse scandal emerged around the country, Donald O'Hara again contacted the diocese about Gawronski's status. He said he was informed that in accordance with diocesan policy Gawronski was in a limited ministry at Saint Mary's.

O'Hara still wasn't satisfied. He said he talked to Bishop Trautman on Feb. 25 about the potential dangers of a repeat offense, despite Gawronski not working in a parish or teaching ministry. The next day, O'Hara said, he received a call from a diocesan official informing him Gawronski had been removed from any ministry.

On March 8, Trautman changed the diocese's policy on child sexual abuse by priests. He said a priest or deacon would not return to active ministry, even a restricted ministry, in the Erie diocese or elsewhere if a charge of sexual abuse against that person is substantiated by a voluntary admission or evidence. Trautman also has said the diocese will contact law enforcement in the future if there are credible allegations of abuse.

Although Donald O'Hara is pleased action was taken after he voiced concern, he and his family remain troubled by the way the diocese handled their case over 18 years. They question why civil authorities were not contacted in 1984 when the claim was first made a time when the case still fell within the statute of limitations for possible criminal prosecution.

Bishop Trautman has defended the internal handling of allegations, saying past bishops developed policies based on the best information available at the time in regard to child sex-abuse offenders.

Sean O'Hara isn't convinced.

"The appropriate action should have been to take it to the authorities and let them handle it,'' Sean O'Hara said. "The more I think about it the more I think it was a cover-up. When I talk about people having to do time it should also include the people who covered it up. I think it is much bigger than just a priest.''

O'Hara said the incident has not ruined his life, but increasingly it weighs on his mind. He remains a Catholic but is considering exploring other faiths. And he has trouble adding money to the collection plate because he fears it will go toward legal fees defending the church in the sex-abuse scandal.

"I have a horrible time finishing my prayers,'' O'Hara said. "I pray every morning, but I get halfway through the Our Father and start thinking about this and can't finish. ... I was damaged. There is no doubt about that. ... Thank God it was a minimal occurrence. I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't had the gumption to stop it.''

The impact reaches beyond Sean O'Hara. His parents, once devoted, no longer consider themselves Catholics.

"I consider myself a Christian, but the (Catholic) church puts its reputation before the welfare of children,'' said Connie O'Hara. "I don't want to be part of any organization that does that.''

Sandy MacHutta knows the Erie diocese can't take any action against the priest she says molested and raped her 43 years ago. He's been dead for more than a decade.

Yet, MacHutta, 56, a former teacher and a married mother of two grown children, thinks the Erie diocese should offer counseling or establish a support group for her and other women she believes were sexually abused by the priest as girls. MacHutta said she fears others were victimized based on conversations in recent years with classmates from the Erie Catholic grade school she attended in the late 1950s.

MacHutta's call for counseling may go unheeded. Trautman on March 7 wrote an e-mail to MacHutta in which he apologized for the church's failure to comfort her. He also offered condolences on behalf of the church.

But in an interview with the Erie Times-News on April 10, when shown a copy of the e-mail he sent to MacHutta, Trautman said he believes MacHutta's accusations might be false and that he has an obligation to defend the priest's "good name.'' Trautman did not mention the priest by name in the e-mail to MacHutta.

The Erie Times-News has decided not to publish the accused priest's name because he is deceased.

"I think someone to bring up something after 43 years without proof or substantiation that calls for a different approach in my opinion,'' Trautman said in the interview. "I think cease and desist. If you need help, go see a counselor and work it out there. ..."

Trautman said the diocese has paid for counseling for victims of child sexual abuse by priests in the Diocese of Erie. Asked whether the diocese would offer those services to MacHutta, Trautman said, "I would say we have no obligation.''

If others were to come forward and make allegations about this particular priest, Trautman said the diocese would re-evaluate how it would address the allegations.

Trautman said he reviewed the accused priest's file and found no allegations or reprimands. He said false accusations are not uncommon, citing molestation allegations against the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago that were later recanted.

MacHutta cried when told of Trautman's response. She stands by her claim that the allegations are true. She said so much time elapsed before she brought the accusations forward because she only started coming to terms with the memories in recent years.

"The church doesn't want to talk to people like us,'' MacHutta said. "They are afraid of us. What are we supposed to do? Where are we supposed to go? I know legally he doesn't have to do anything for me, but where is his moral being?''

Even more perplexing to MacHutta is the written response she received from Trautman in March. She said she perceived the e-mail to be an acknowledgement and apology for the abuse she claims to have suffered. Trautman's e-mail was in response to a letter MacHutta sent to the Lake Shore Visitor, the diocesan newspaper. The letter named the priest and urged a more open dialogue on sex abuse to ease the pain of victims living "with false shame and guilt.'' The Lake Shore Visitor never published MacHutta's letter.

Trautman, in his e-mail, wrote:

"What particularly saddens me is the 'anguish and confusion' you have had to bear these many years. My heart and prayers go out to you. How right you are in stating the damage done was in no way related to anything you did.

"Since coming to Erie from the Diocese of Buffalo, I have made every effort to ensure that the sinful and unlawful acts on the part of a few priests do no damage and hurt the lives of others. Anyone involved in such behavior will never again serve as a priest in this diocese or elsewhere.

"Christ established the Church to bring peace, comfort, compassion, mercy and consolation salvation to peoples everywhere. For its failure to be that for you, I apologize and am deeply sorry. I could not agree more when you write that Jesus 'truly is the only One who can heal our broken hearts.' I will pray for that healing in your life and in the lives of others unjustly damaged by these kinds of transgressions."

Asked about the e-mail on April 10, Trautman said "we tried to take a pastoral approach to this woman. I don't know if those charges are true. I tried to offer her advice to put it in perspective so she could go on with her life. The man is dead, and I am hoping when I am dead someone will protect my good name.''

MacHutta said there is no statute of limitations on emotional pain caused by sexual abuse. She said for years she tried to bury memories of the abuse, but they surfaced again when a high-profile clergy sexual-abuse case went to trial in Dallas.

MacHutta said she has gone through eight years of private counseling in an attempt to come to terms with the alleged abuse. Twice she was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts.

MacHutta thought she had finally reconciled with her own painful history until the scandal broke earlier this year in Boston and around the country.

"I thought I had come to some closure, but like an old wound I thought was totally healed, it came ripping open again,'' MacHutta said. "We (victims) are not bad people. The shame needs to get out of our lives. It is the shame and silence that devastates us.''

MacHutta responded to Trautman's e-mail by writing back to him that she was concerned that victims "need to know that we are not forgotten and that the Church is holding her arms open wide to comfort, console, and help us....''

Trautman will be in Dallas in June, when he attends the general meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops are to discuss new policies regarding child sexual abuse by priests in light of the pope's meeting last week with the American cardinals at the Vatican.

MacHutta extended an invitation to Trautman to meet with her to hear her story while he is Dallas. In asking for the meeting, she wrote, "for it is not until we walk in our brothers' shoes do we fully understand their pain.''

MacHutta has not received a response. But she said she'll be at the bishops' meeting.

"You better believe this lady is going to be there with a picket sign,'' she said.

On that sign MacHutta will write a passage from the Bible: "If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart."

"Jesus is speaking to (the bishops) don't shut him out,'' MacHutta said. "He is speaking to them through us, the victims. They can't shut us out forever. We are not going away.''

Contact: scott.westcott@timesnews.com, ed.palattella@timesnews.com.

 
 

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