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  A Cross to Bear
A Number of Catholic Priests Accused of Sexual Abuse Served Together at the Same Cleveland Parishes and at Borromeo Seminary
Parishioners Are Trying to Cope

By Tom Breckenridge and David Briggs
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio]
June 16, 2002

Most Catholics are shocked and angry about the church's sex abuse scandal. But in some Cleveland diocese parishes, the revelations are particularly troubling. At least eight parishes have had more than one of their priests accused of sexual abuse.

At Holy Family in Stow, reeling congregants have learned that three priests who served the church during the 1970s had been accused of abusing minors.

Even worse, they have lost their "Father Joe" - the Reverend Joseph Lieberth, 60, parish pastor - to suspension for alleged abuse of a minor. A 15-foot banner bearing messages of support for Lieberth went up in early April in the church sanctuary. The sympathy, however, was far from universal.

Many parishioners could not bring themselves to sign. One teenage parishioner said she would be afraid if Lieberth returned. Others were taken aback by the pastor's admission of an "isolated incident" involving a 17-year-old boy.

"There's concern for this young man, too," says parishioner Evonn Welton, 47. "It's hard to reconcile."

Congregants at Holy Family are not alone in dealing with a troubling past. A Plain Dealer review of where alleged abusive priests have served (See Chart, Page 12) shows that parishes such as Ascension and St. Patrick, both in the West Park neighborhood of Cleveland, had more than one alleged abuser working at the same time and had several priests with histories of alleged abuse assigned to them during the 1980s.

Other parishes, such as St. Joseph in Avon Lake and Holy Family, would see a succession of alleged abusive priests.

In all these churches, the anger, denial, shock and sadness is deeply personal.

"My main concern is why a parish with such a large amount of children would have more than one priest like that," says Holy Family member Bibiana Seislove, 39.

Seislove, who teaches at a Catholic middle school, says she and her husband are struggling to answer the questions of their four children, who attend Holy Family school.

"It's damage control at this point," Seislove says. "We don't have the answers."

For those left behind in the parishes where clergy have been accused of abusing children - the members, the alleged victims and their families, and the new priests assigned there - the sadness is palpable.

Like hundreds of others going back generations at Ascension, Katie Corbett thought she knew the priests. Now she is struggling to reconcile her fond recollections of the holy men who shaped her family's spiritual life with shocking images now emerging of abused children and shattered victims.

"There's an internal conflict," says Corbett, 48, coordinator of youth ministries at Ascension. "This is not the person that we knew and yet there are allegations of terrible things. It's so heartbreaking."

Corbett says she remembers seeing the Reverends Gary Berthiaume and Allen Bruening routinely doing good works at Ascension.

So it seemed innocent enough to her back in the 1980s when she and her children would run into Bruening at a hotel pool near the parish.

"We'd talk with him," Corbett says. "He would be there sometimes with kids from the parish."

Few people back then thought priests were capable of the sorts of acts of which so many have been accused.

The mother of one abuse victim was almost embarrassed to tell another mom her concerns about the Reverend Bruening's plans to take their children on a trip to Niagara Falls.

Is this guy OK? she asked, half-joking.

"Well, the kids would tell us," they decided.

"We almost laughed about it, 'Gee, we're not being nice. We're going to hell for just thinking about it.'" What Corbett, the victim's mother and other parishioners only recently learned is that according to victims, Bruening would use those trips to the pool to seduce young boys.

As a child at Ascension, Frank (not his real name), now a young West Side adult, says he not only had to contend with Bruening, but also with Berthiaume, who was sent to the Cleveland diocese after serving six months in a Michigan prison for child abuse. Back at Ascension school after the swimming trips, says Frank, both priests were waiting in the showers.

While Bruening stood naked in a one-person stall, says Frank, Berthiaume would be ordering him to join the other priest in the shower.

"Here I am, a little kid, and here is this pastor, you want to believe you're a good kid," Frank says. "This person is the next closest thing to God. You would do anything that they would say. How could you question these people?" A couple of miles west of Ascension down Puritas Avenue, parishioners at St. Patrick's also grapple with the memories of the holy men who served them.

There, the Reverend Thomas Burg, 63, a now-inactive priest named by the diocese in April as the subject of abuse allegations, served with the Reverend Donald Rooney in the mid-1990s. Rooney committed suicide last March after being called into the chancery to discuss an allegation he abused a teenage girl at St. Patrick.

Former parishioner Patrick Kiley says that he's still angry about the stone wall he hit when he, his wife and another couple confronted Burg and Rooney 16 years ago with concerns that Rooney had improperly touched their adolescent daughters.

Kiley says his daughter told him Rooney put his hand under her shirt and ran his hand across her bare stomach during confession, saying he was worried she might be developing an ulcer.

His daughter, 13 at the time, came out of the confessional in tears, according to her friends. But she did not tell her parents until a year later, in 1986.

The other couple, who asked not to be identified, say Burg ran his hands down the sides of their daughter's shirt during a confession, saying he was concerned she was losing weight.

Kiley complained to the diocese and went back to Burg. Nothing ever happened, he says.

"I suffer guilt that I didn't pursue it further," Kiley says.

Kiley believed then that Burg was covering for Rooney. He believes it more strongly now, given recent revelations that Burg himself had to leave the ministry because of allegations he abused minors.

"That news [about Burg] infuriated me," says Kiley. "But I was also relieved. I thought then that my suspicions about them were correct.

They didn't want any of this to go forward. We weren't looking for money. We were looking for them to get rid of a priest we believed was a threat."

Kiley, 49, of Westlake, is no longer a practicing Catholic.

Corbett, who is still at Ascension, is "really, really torn. I felt my kids were safe here with these men. I feel very sad for those families who had a different experience."

St. Joseph's of Avon Lake is one of the diocese's fastest-growing parishes. The Lake Road church and school sit facing Lake Erie and a disquieting past.

"It's tremendously disappointing and it really hurts," says parishioner Carmen LoParo, 55 and a former FBI agent. "It's embarrassing to talk about these things."

The painful topic is the church's revered founder, the late Reverend Carl Wernet, and two other alleged abusive priests who have served at St. Joseph.

Eight women sued the diocese in 1993, claiming Wernet molested or raped them in the 1950s and '60s.

Wernet left St. Joseph in the mid-1960s. Then came Dennis Wirks, 58, who served there in the early Seventies. In April, the diocese named Wirks as a former priest who was accused of abusing minors.

The diocese transferred Wirks from St. Joseph to St. Barnabas in Northfield. Shortly after, the Reverend Joseph Labbe came in, serving at St. Joseph until 1981. Labbe, now 55, was suspended in April as pastor of Holy Angels parish in Bainbridge Township. He is among a dozen active priests suspended because of allegations of child sexual abuse.

St. Joseph school Principal Patricia Vaccaro, 53, speaks well of Wernet. "The only memories I have are of his being a very positive influence. Through his leadership, we are where we are today," she says.

For many others, Wernet's legacy is the problem. Alleged victims say divorce, attempted suicide, depression and other signs of emotional devastation carried across decades by girls who were molested as early as age seven by a priest who would give them holy cards and prayer books as gifts after abusing them.

An alleged Wernet victim, who declined to be identified, says it is "disgraceful" the way Catholic leaders have tried to bury the problem over the years.

"You know what kills me about the whole thing? My family and [I] are about the best Catholics anyone could imagine," she says. "It [the Catholic Church] is such a good route, and it just kills me that it can't seem to come to grips with the problem."

At Holy Family in Stow, the pain and opinions are fresh.

In a letter to the congregation after his April suspension, the Reverend Lieberth admitted "an isolated incident involving a 17-year-old boy," but, he explained, that after an extended assessment he was able to be assigned to Holy Family.

Another alleged victim, who says he was abused as a 16-year-old boy in the mid-1980s, disputes the assertion Lieberth abused only one child in an isolated incident.

Three other priests who served Holy Family during the 1970s had faced accusations of abusing minors: The Reverend Russell Banner, 64, who was suspended in April from Annunciation in Cleveland; William McCool, a former priest named by the diocese in April as having been accused of abuse; and the Reverend Joseph Seminatore, 60, who is vigorously denying a claim that he abused a teenager in the mid-1980s at a Catholic home for troubled youths.

The revelations at Holy Family and other affected parishes initially stirred a maelstrom of emotion. But many congregants are finding comfort with the passage of time and, their new spiritual leaders say, with each other.

"It's affected us all, no doubt," says the Reverend Timothy O'Connor, the pastor at St. Joseph. "It hasn't caused any kind of impasse, but I'd say it's a bit like after September 11. We re-evaluated our priorities and families got closer."

O'Connor still respects Wernet's work in building the parish and uses a card with Wernet's picture to mark his daily readings of Scripture and prayer. "It's like something happened in your family and you're not proud of it," he says. "We share each other's joys and bear each other's sorrows."

Particularly disturbing is the number of priests accused of abuse who were assigned to Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, where candidates for the priesthood prepare. The seminary had at least one alleged abuser assigned continuously from 1975 through 1991.

For the first time in 21 years, the pope ordered an apostolic visitation of every U.S. seminary. The pontiff wants to cut off the potential for abuse of children before a priest ever steps into a parish.

Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, a U.S. bishops' spokesman, calls it an opportunity "to assure the people that the candidates for the priesthood are suitable people, and any problems that might lead to immaturity in behavior would have been caught or addressed in seminary."

But there are some who believe seminaries have served as a breeding ground, rather than a check, on abuse. Borromeo was the home to several priests who have faced past allegations of abusing minors.

Leonard Ferrante, 65, a former priest who was identified by the diocese in April as having faced past allegations, was assigned to Borromeo from 1968 to 1976. The Reverend Anthony Muzic, accused in a lawsuit of abusing an altar boy, served there from 1974 to 1982.

Muzic, who denies the allegations and was not named by the diocese as an alleged abuser, was a spiritual director at the seminary.

Martin Louis, 62, who is in prison for raping a minor, resided at Borromeo from 1981 to 1985. Labbe, the former priest at St. Joseph suspended in April for allegations a source said involved teenage boys, served at Borromeo from 1982 to 1991. He served both as dean of men and a recruiter for the seminary.

Those kind of assignments would not happen today, seminary officials say.

The Reverend Robert Stec, diocesan vocations director, says parents of seminarians can be confident people with abusive backgrounds will not be assigned to Borromeo, or to St. Mary, the post-secondary seminary in Wickliffe.

"Especially in light of today's current realities," he says, "the bishop has worked hard to make sure good, solid people serve in the seminaries."

The faithful at parishes served by not one, but several alleged abusers, are now left to pick up the pieces. At Ascension, visitors see a message on the church's Puritas Avenue sign: "Keep on Being Church."

The Reverend Joseph Fortuna created the motto that has caught on among congregants.

It's a reminder, Fortuna says, that the church continues to do good works, even as discouraging news reports pile up. "The church is not just bishops and priests. Don't get dragged down by this."

There is no easy grace, however. Angered churchgoers have expressed a willingness to forgive, but only if the church gets its act together.

For many, that means never returning abusive priests to parishes.

At St. Joseph in Avon Lake, parishioner LoParo advocates "zero tolerance" for priests who have ever abused a minor.

"There should have been punishment and punishment immediately," he says. "You can't hide in the shadow of the cross from the judicial system."

In Cleveland, longtime Ascension parish member Caroline Paull says that the Catholic diocese should never have assigned men like Bruening and Berthiaume to parishes in proximity to children.

Her son and two grandsons attended the church school. She feels disappointed and betrayed by the news that several priests with alleged abusive backgrounds were sent to Ascension, she says.

But she is staying. It is the church that has to shape up, says Paull.

"It covers things up, smooths it over and then pacifies people," says Paull, 61, of the church bureaucracy. "It was wrong, and now you have to fix it."

 
 

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