Parish Wants to Keep Priest Who Abused Boy
Many Forgave the Rev. Thomas Devita Years Ago. But New Rules Force His Removal
By Marisa Schultz
July 28, 2002
New Buffalo, Mich. — It was Aug. 16, 1998, when America's Catholic priest scandal reached the pews of St. Mary of the Lake Church.
The Rev. Thomas DeVita, the well-liked pastor at the tiny brick church, stood at the pulpit and confessed to having sexual contact with a teen-age boy 20 years earlier. He'd made a mistake, he said. He'd repented and asked God for mercy. Now, he was asking the same of his parishioners. Forgive him, DeVita said, or he would leave the priesthood.
Shocked by the news but sympathetic to a leader they respected, many in the church that morning gave DeVita a standing ovation.
Later that day, parishioner Esther Adrian sat in her New Buffalo farmhouse and wondered whether the church had done the right thing: "This man has really sinned and what did we do? We clapped for him."
This tiny west Michigan town captures the conflicting emotions that Catholics across the nation have faced in recent months, as hundreds of cases of sex abuse and cover-ups have been revealed. An estimated 250 priests have either resigned or have been removed from the church because of allegations of sex abuse. DeVita will join their ranks today, when he performs his last Sunday Mass.
When he takes off the black and white clergy clothes he has worn for 24 years, he'll enter the growing gray area surrounding the scandal, where depths of forgiveness, the need for retribution and the possibility of rehabilitation are far from resolved.
Dan Lotten burst into his King's Park, N.Y., home, ran up the stairs to his room and shut the door. It seemed a strange action for a boy returning from an exciting trip to New York City before Christmas in 1978.
A priest from the family's church had invited Dan to see a Radio City Music Hall show for the first time. DeVita, a young priest, told mother Kathleen Lotten that Dan had gotten hurt wrestling.
Dan, 16, had met DeVita in the church's youth group. DeVita would take Dan out to dinner, buy him gifts and offer to take him on special trips, Kathleen Lotten said last week.
The family was thrilled that a priest had taken such an interest in their son. They thought their son couldn't be safer.
When DeVita called Dan's house later that winter night, Dan wouldn't come to the phone. "To hell with Father Tom," he said to his mom.
Dan finally emerged from his room and asked his mother to take him to the doctor. There, the doctor pulled Kathleen Lotten aside and asked her if Dan had been sexually abused over the weekend.
Devastated and outraged, the Lottens couldn't decide on a remedy. Reporting a priest to the police was like damaging the reputation of Jesus Christ — unthinkable.
Donald Lotten, Dan's father, begged one of his friends for a gun.
Kathleen Lotten stormed over to DeVita's office, closed the door and didn't leave until DeVita promised that he would never touch Dan again. Her family never returned to his church.
At the urging of her friends in 1983, Kathleen Lotten decided to report the incident to the area bishop, Gerald Ryan. The bishop reassured her that he would take care of the matter.
Ten years later, Kathleen read in a Catholic newspaper that DeVita was to be appointed as pastor in a Long Island, N.Y., church.
For a decade, she had assumed that DeVita had been disciplined by the Catholic hierarchy. But that day, she learned he was moved around to two New York churches before he was appointed as pastor.
She went to the New York bishop's office, where she had reported DeVita in 1983. The bishop checked DeVita's file in her presence, and he found no record of her complaint. Ryan, who had since died, had never documented her visit.
The handling of Dan's case was typical of the time: cover-ups, gag orders and priest reshufflings.
This time — 15 years after the incident — someone listened. The local church hierarchy decided that DeVita shouldn't become a pastor in Long Island and they sent him to three months of psychiatric treatment in Connecticut.
The diocese gave Dan $50,000 in exchange for a written agreement that he wouldn't talk about the incident again.
DeVita was eventually released from the therapy center with recommendations that he was no longer a threat to children and that he should be reinstated to the ministry. A friend of his, Bishop Alfred Markiewicz of Kalamazoo, offered him a job as pastor in New Buffalo, Mich.
Cause for concern
Staring at her priest at the pulpit, Leona Williams, a parishioner for nearly 30 years, couldn't help but swear under her breath.
She and her husband, Jay, had received an anonymous letter in the mail claiming that DeVita was a priest with a tainted past. She'd thrown the letter in the trash and now couldn't believe DeVita was telling the congregation it was true.
DeVita had said to his parishioners in August 1998 that he had a consensual, sexual relationship with a 16-year-old in New York 20 years earlier.
Two images of DeVita popped up in Williams' mind. On one side, she saw the "Bad DeVita" who had taken advantage of a confused teen and lured him into a sexual relationship. He then used his religious stature to cloak the horrible mistake he made years ago.
On the other side, she saw the "Good DeVita" whom she had respected as a devout priest. The church struggled to find a permanent pastor for years. Priests were on loan from various parishes. DeVita's recent arrival had answered her prayers for a priest who would stay in New Buffalo and lift their spirits.
"I tried to weigh one image against the other," Williams recalled. "It was either lose a good priest or have rent-a-priests from now on. I had made up my mind."
Some families left the church after the confession — the number quoted varies between critics and supporters of DeVita. Most, like Williams, who stayed at the New Buffalo church after his announcement, are staunch supporters.
Each has their own personal story of how DeVita has touched their lives. Carol Reynolds, a member of the choir, said DeVita taught her family the importance of forgiveness. Her husband had been sexually abused as a boy and through DeVita's guidance he has moved on and forgiven his abuser.
Same-sex couples who were struggling to find acceptance in society, let alone a place in a church, have now found a home at St. Mary of the Lake. DeVita said everyone is welcome in his parish, no matter their race, sexual orientation or religion.
When he arrived, enrollment at St. Mary of the Lake's school was dwindling. Now a seventh grade and an eighth grade have been added to feed the new demand. A massive reconstruction project, adding a gym, cafeteria and stage, is under way.
Once Jennifer Cochrane, the parish council president, heard that the bishops were having a conference in Dallas on the sexual-abuse crisis, she organized a 30-hour prayer vigil and petition drive to pray that the bishops would devise a policy that would exclude DeVita.
Cochrane gathered 150 signatures and sent them to the new Kalamazoo Bishop James Murray, who has supported of DeVita since his arrival.
"Really, in my heart of hearts, I never thought he would have to go," Cochrane said. "I thought no one could waste his gifts and talents."
DeVita discusses his past
Sitting in the white confessional room in the back of the New Buffalo church, DeVita, 55, shifts from side to side in the blue chair when talking about his past.
He said that he was raped as a 13-year-old boy in the basement of his seminary school by a maintainence man. After he told school officials what had happened, he wasn't allowed to return.
"Rape is a horrible thing. It's a destruction of another person's life," DeVita said. "I'm not justifying what happened in 1978 or excusing it, but what happened in 1978 was not a rape or an attack.
"(It) was the right way of sharing affection with someone as opposed to what happened to me in 1961 — except it wasn't the right way because he was a minor and I was a priest."
Kathleen Lotten balks at DeVita's comments. She knows how her son felt when he returned from the weekend, and she knows her son did not consent.
For her, DeVita's removal from the church has not brought the comfort that she'd expected. The scandals, abuse and cover-ups within the Catholic Church have taken their toll.
She has since left the faith. She battled with wanting to stay and fight for change, but once you've been hurt so badly it's hard to find hope for a future, she said.
Around 1998, she was contacted by some of DeVita's ex-parishioners once they suspected DeVita's past. Shortly thereafter, the anonymous letters were sent to everyone on the parish mailing list, which prompted DeVita's confession.
Hopes for return
DeVita has begun packing his clergy clothes in a box. He'll give them to a friend for safe keeping. He's hoping one day the bishops' policy will change and he'll ask for them back.
He wryly asks his parishioners if they know of any good jobs. He's not sure what he'll do after his lifelong career. He's not allowed to work in any religious field, including teaching theology. He's looking into a counseling position.
After his farewell parties, DeVita will quietly leave the New Buffalo church to his new farmhouse. Its location has remained secret, and parishioners can only send letters via the diocese. DeVita looks forward to privacy.
His faithful have promised to welcome the new priest. Others who have left, are considering coming back.
Unlike other Sundays, DeVita has planned his final sermon days in advance. He has chosen his final themes carefully as parting words of advice: forgiveness, hope and welcome. Copies will be available to his parishioners.
"We will continue to go Mass, like nothing ever happened," usher Jay Williams said. "But we know something happened. We lost our pastor that we loved, but we still have to go on with God's work."
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