Diocese, Wehrle Grad Settle Priest-Abuse Claim

By Dennis M. Mahoney
Columbus Dispatch [Ohio]
July 30, 2002

As a 31-year-old former Columbus man detailed his allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of a Roman Catholic priest yesterday, the bishop of the Columbus Diocese said he doesn't believe the man's claims.

"I trust Father (Martin) Weithman, and he's never lied to me in 19-plus years of working with me," Bishop James A. Griffin said. "He said to me, 'I did not do it.' " But Dennis Palmer, Weithman's accuser, said the priest repeatedly molested him for several years, beginning when Palmer was 14 and a student at the former Wehrle High School on the South Side.

"If they do a true investigation of the allegations I have made, it will be clear that the things I have stated happened have happened, and they will be forced to deal with them," said Palmer, who lives near Cleveland.

On Saturday, Griffin told members of Seton Parish in Pickerington that Weithman, the pastor, was being put on administrative leave because of Palmer's allegations. He said the diocese is paying Palmer $115,000 to settle the matter.

The bishop said the 47-year-old priest will remain on leave until the allegations are investigated by the Diocesan Review Board, which is being established under rules adopted by U.S. bishops in June to deal with sexual-abuse allegations against priests.

Yesterday, John Snider, the Lancaster attorney representing Weithman, said the priest was unavailable for interviews. He refused to reveal Weithman's whereabouts; Griffin said he doesn't know where the priest is.

In a statement, Snider said Weithman "has consistently and vehemently denied any inappropriate behavior involving Mr. Palmer at any time."

Griffin said that until the matter is resolved, Weithman is not permitted to minister publicly, including conducting Mass.

The bishop said the diocese settled the case because "of the stress involved for both the accuser and Father Weithman, and people in the parish, and myself, and clergy in general."

He also cited concerns about the time and expense of contesting such a case.

Griffin said Weithman and Snider were involved in the decision to settle. "We would not have done that without their approval," he said.

The figure, Griffin said, was arrived at through negotiations with Palmer's attorney, Daniel Volkema.

In a statement, the diocese said the allegations had been referred to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien. O'Brien did not return a telephone call yesterday seeking comment.

The bishop said "the absolute truth" is unlikely to emerge in a "he said/he said" case.

Palmer passed a lie-detector test, the results of which were released yesterday. Snider said in his statement that Weithman also passed such a test.

In an interview after signing the settlement papers, Palmer said Weithman used to visit the Palmer home in the early 1980s for dinner and other events. The family belonged to St. Ladislas Church on the South Side, where Weithman was an associate pastor.

When he began his freshman year at Wehrle, Palmer said, he began seeing Weithman at the school frequently. He said he believed the priest was coming around the school "to be around me."

At the end of his sophomore year, Palmer said, "Things began to escalate."

By then, Weithman was chaplain of the school's basketball team.

He said the priest began giving him gifts in return for physical contact. For example, Palmer said, Weithman would sometimes pay him $50 to allow the priest to massage him and to swim naked together.

Palmer said much of the contact -- which at times involved touching his genitals -- took place at the Salesian Boys & Girls Club Downtown. He said Weithman had a key to the club and that they'd meet there after hours on weekends.

Weithman, he said, often would hear his confession in the sauna at the club.

Palmer played basketball at Wehrle for four years and was a varsity team member as a senior. During a trip to a tournament in Arkansas that year, he said, Weithman wanted to room with him, but the coach would not allow it.

The two also went on trips to Iowa, Michigan and the East Coast, usually to attend sporting events, Palmer said.

The priest often talked of how lonely he was, Palmer said. Weithman, he said, told him that "I was the only one who could provide the emotional and physical needs he had."

"I began to feel like: 'OK, this guy is lonely as a priest. He's in a rectory all by himself with another priest.' And so when he would ask me to do things, I would feel a great sense of empathy."

One of Palmer's classmates, who asked that his name not be used, said that by their senior year, many wondered about Palmer's relationship with Weithman and teased him about it.

"They were always together," the classmate said.

Palmer said he never told his parents about the molestations.

"They trusted him completely," he said.

The relationship continued until 1992, Palmer said, when he was going to Ohio State University. Weithman became angry because Palmer was dating a woman at Ohio University.

He said he reported nothing to the diocese previously because he was embarrassed and didn't want to "put my family through hell."

"But it got to the point where I began having dreams about him every single night," Palmer said. "And I just realized that it was time, that he had done something terrible to me and there was the potential that he could be doing it to somebody else."

In a statement read to the Seton congregation Saturday, Weithman said he was considering suing Palmer for defamation. A statement issued by Snider yesterday said the priest hasn't the money to do so.

The board that will investigate the allegations will have five members, four of whom will be lay people, Griffin said. They are to have an organizational meeting this week, the bishop said, to determine how they will handle such cases.

Griffin said the allegations against Weithman will be among the first to be reviewed. He said he hopes to have the board operating within a month, and the Weithman case resolved by mid-September.

Two other cases will go to the board. One concerns Monsignor Joseph Fete, who has admitted to sexually abusing a minor in the late 1970s while he was serving at St. Joseph Cathedral. He was removed as pastor of a West Side parish in April.

The other involves the Rev. Michael Ellifritz, who was accused of abusing a minor about 20 years ago and who recently retired for health reasons. Griffin said the priest has moved to Florida.

The board is to determine whether allegations are legitimate and advise the bishop on whether a priest should be allowed to continue in ministry.


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