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  New Policies on Priest Abuse Spur Local Action
Accused Clergyman Put on Leave; Family Says Claims Were Dismissed for 2 Decades

By Bonnie Harris and Judith Cebula
Indianapolis Star
July 14, 2002

For more than two decades, an Eastside family has hoped the Archdiocese of Indianapolis would thoroughly investigate the priest they believe abused their nephew in the late 1970s.

In 1978, Paul and Nancy Tuttle first told archdiocese officials they thought the Rev. Jack Okon had made sexual advances toward their nephew Vincent Steiner and had given Vincent and other boys marijuana.

Nothing happened.

In the 1980s, family members shared the allegations with at least one priest and the board president of Cathedral High School, Okon's employer at the time. The family said church officials simply counseled the priest to think about his career.

Then everything changed.

A priest sexual abuse scandal erupted in Boston in January and spread nationwide.

When Vincent's brother, David Steiner, met with archdiocese officials last month and told them that when he was a teen-ager his genitals were fondled by Okon, the church moved.

Okon, through his lawyer, has denied all allegations.

The brothers' recollections of the abuse that they say they suffered are not clear. Doctors diagnosed Vincent as a schizophrenic years ago. David, who never spoke of his alleged abuse until last month, has limited memory of the event.

But when David appealed to the church in June, he got action.

The archdiocese announced it had placed Okon "on an administrative leave, pending the outcome of the investigation." Cathedral High School officials removed Okon, 58, from his maintenance job there and banned him from the Northeastside campus.

That came soon after the nation's bishops gathered in June in Dallas and adopted a policy that requires church officials to investigate all allegations of abuse and oust priests who have sexually abused children -- even abuse that happened decades ago.

Okon's lawyer, David Hennessy, has advised the priest not to speak to reporters.

"Father Jack Okon continues to cooperate with the appropriate authorities conducting a fair investigation. He has no comment for The Star," Hennessy said in a written statement.

The lawyer has enlisted others who know Okon to contact The Star in defense of the priest. About 12 e-mails in the past few days described Okon as a good man and a good priest who was strongly supportive of the young boys to whom he ministered.

Church officials have refused to comment on the case.

"It is inappropriate for us to discuss individual cases while they are under investigation," said Susan Borcherts, a church spokeswoman.

The 1970s

The Steiner boys first met Okon in 1974, when he was appointed associate pastor at their Eastside parish, Little Flower.

"My brother and I were good Catholics," said David, 42, who retired from the U.S. Navy two years ago and moved back to the Eastside with his family.

The Steiners' mother died in a car crash when Vincent was 3 and David was 5. At first, the boys and their three older siblings lived with their father. That didn't last.

"My dad couldn't take care of us," David said, "and we went to the four winds with the family."

The three older children moved in with their uncle and aunt, Paul and Nancy Tuttle. David moved in with his maternal grandparents. Vincent lived with a family friend for a while then joined David at his grandparents' home.

The brothers attended the parish school at Little Flower through eighth grade. For both, the church was central to their lives: David was in the choir, Vince an altar boy.

Okon, a young priest then, befriended the Steiner boys. He took them to movies, on trips and to get ice cream, the brothers said.

David said he was fondled by Okon during an out-of-state trip. He's not sure if he was 14 or 15 or where the incident took place, but he never forgot what happened. He awakened one night to find Okon touching his genitals through his underwear. The priest immediately left the room.

David didn't tell anyone.

Vincent, too, who now suffers from schizophrenia, initially kept quiet about what he calls his "night into hell" with Okon.

Vincent's memory of the alleged 1977 incident isn't clear. But medical records from a 1979 hospitalization tell of the episode.

A social worker wrote this after talking with Vincent: "A priest named Jack asked him to go out one night to 'ride around.' The priest then offered marijuana, and they got high together. Vince claims that while high, the priest began to masturbate and Vince 'freaked out' and asked the priest to take him home."

Letter found

In November 1977, Okon enlisted as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force. His first assignment: Malstrom Air Force Base, Mont.

Vincent, who had a history of behavior problems in school, began an all-out battle with mental illness and drug abuse the following spring. He has been in and out of mental institutions since, has been arrested several times and served prison time for stealing a woman's purse.

In 1978, Vincent was expelled from Scecina Memorial High School after he exposed himself. That year, he was admitted to Community Hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia.

While Vincent was hospitalized in 1978, Nancy Tuttle and Vincent's grandmother found a hand-written letter Okon allegedly sent from Montana.

Neither Okon nor his lawyer would comment on the letter.

"Yea (sic), I remember the last time we were together -- we were on the way to the airport. Vince, I guess like you, I don't know exactly what happened, but I knew then that it was something that you and I didn't have any control over. . . . I'm very relieved that you're getting professional help," said the letter, signed "Sincerely, Jack."

The Tuttles met with archdiocese officials about the letter. Subsequently, Nancy Tuttle said a church representative phoned her and said Okon was in the military and no longer under the archdio cese's jurisdiction. That person assured her that someone had talked to Okon and told him "to think about his career."

She said she was furious. "They were worried about Jack's career more than Vincent's well-being."

Church officials won't confirm those details.

But at least one priest recalls the family voicing concerns about Okon.

The Rev. Ron Ashmore, now pastor of St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Terre Haute, said Vincent's grandparents told him in the late 1970s that Okon had harmed their grandchild. At the time, Ashmore was a teacher at Scecina and had been visiting Vincent in Community Hospital.

The grandparents didn't specify sexual misconduct, said Ashmore, who went to high school with Okon and lived with him in a rectory in 1976 when both were assistant pastors at St. Simon.

"I told them that I'd never seen anything inappropriate or suspected it, but if that is true and that was something that could be substantiated, then you need to contact the (archdiocese) personnel board," he said.

Ashmore said he did not report the allegation to church officials in large part because no explicit sexual allegation has been made.

Wearing briefs around boys

Others who, like the Steiners, befriended Okon during their junior high and high school years have varying recollections of their experiences.

Phil Doyle, who graduated from Little Flower a year after David, said he and other boys were allowed by Okon to fill milk jugs with beer from a keg in the Little Flower rectory basement. They also drank the beer.

Doyle also remembers feeling uncomfortable at a church sleepover, when Okon walked around wearing only briefs with the words "Home of the Whopper" on the front.

"I just wanted to get out of there," said Doyle, 40, a heating and air-conditioning mechanic who lives out of state.

Ken Erlenbaugh also remembers the "Whopper" underwear and beer drinking with other boys at the Little Flower rectory. But he insists he never saw Okon engage in any inappropriate behavior with the youngsters.

In fact, Erlenbaugh said, Okon always was an "advocate and protector of the young."

"Jack is a decent human being that has helped many in their time of need, when others would have washed their hands of the situation," said the 41-year-old electronics technician who now lives in the northern Indiana town of Fremont. "I can think of several times he has helped people get their GED (high school equivalency certificate) or (go) down a path towards a better future."

Others praised the priest, too.

Marion County Coroner John P. McGoff, who met Okon in the early 1970s, said the priest "was always very helpful and taught me about responsibility and the value of hard work." At the time, Okon was at St. Pius X, the church McGoff attended.

"In the winter of 1973, I had the opportunity to travel overseas with (Father) Okon and another student to Europe. We spent over two weeks together visiting cathedrals, museums, and skiing in the Alps," McGoff, 42, wrote in an e-mail message.

"While my parents were initially hesitant about sending an eighth-grader on such a trip, their concerns were allayed when they knew that (Father) Okon was involved and that he would be the chaperone. They had implicit trust in his capabilities and allowed me to go. . . . At no time during the trip was there ever any inappropriate behavior on the part of (Father) Okon."

The 1980s

Okon returned to Indianapolis after he left the military in 1985.

But he didn't do what priests are supposed to do -- check in with the archdiocese, Ashmore said. "A priest doesn't just roam, unattached," he said.

With no church assignment, Okon began filling in for other priests -- until the archdiocese notified priests that they could not use Okon's services, Ashmore said.

Eventually, Okon was allowed to fill in at parishes again.

Cathedral High School hired him in 1989 as a maintenance worker. When the Tuttles found out, Paul Tuttle raised his concerns about Okon to the chairman of the School Board at the time, Danny O'Malia, an Indianapolis grocer.

In response, O'Malia talked to then-vicar general, the Rev. David Coats.

Coats, who left the priesthood in 1994, confirmed meeting with school officials and discussing whether Okon was fit to work at the high school. They determined that he was.

Coats said that while he was vicar general from 1989 to 1994 he was unaware of any sexual misconduct allegations against Okon. But officials had concerns about Okon's unorthodox style. "He had difficulty in engaging parishioners and working with parish councils," Coats said. "People found him unusual in his approach to administration and personal relationships."

Cathedral has received no complaints against Okon since he joined the staff, the school's principal, Steve Helmich, said.

In 1995, Okon obtained a restraining order against Vincent Steiner. In his petition, the priest alleged his life was threatened by Vincent in a recorded phone message.

"The respondent (Vincent) threatened to blow my head off and throw me in the White River," the petition states.

Okon remains suspended from ministry during the church's current investigation.

"It's been a long time coming," said Paul Tuttle, who along with Nancy remains a church-going Catholic. "We just don't want him in a place where he could hurt any children anymore."

David Steiner wants resolution. And he wants his own two sons, ages 1 and 5, to grow up in the faith.

"I would love to have them go to Little Flower and have them experience the religious aspect of the teachings and the discipline and the education," he said. "I look back on my experiences there and they were great, except for one thing."



Ministry record

The Rev. Jack Okon has been a priest in the Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis for 32 years. Here's a record of his ministry in the archdiocese and as a military chaplain:

Born: June 29, 1944

Ordained: Dec. 18, 1970, St. Meinrad School of Theology

Associate pastor: St. Lawrence Catholic Church, Indianapolis, 1970

Associate pastor: St. Pius X Catholic Church, Indianapolis, 1971

Associate pastor: Little Flower Catholic Church, Indianapolis, 1974

Associate pastor: St. Simon Catholic Church, Indianapolis, 1976

Chaplain: Air Force, 1977 to 1985

Ministry assignments unknown: 1985-1989

Maintenance worker: Cathedral High School, Indianapolis, 1989-2002. Also filled in on weekends for vacationing priests in central Indiana parishes

 
 

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