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  Accused Priest's Parish Defends Him Fiercely

By David Briggs
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio]
September 3, 2002

He is a man so revered for his devotion to a traditional church that some of his followers compare him to Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. The nickname "Father God" is sometimes whispered in the halls of St. Rose of Lima Church in Cleveland.

Yet the Rev. James Viall is one of 15 active priests suspended by the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland after they were accused of sexual misconduct.

Viall, 73, was placed on leave July 3 after two families told the diocese and the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services that they had discovered inappropriate photos of minors and that Viall had been providing alcohol to children.

Two successful professional men later told prosecutors Viall abused them in the 1950s and '70s. One of them has sued Viall.

The case is a striking example of the two faces of the priesthood confronting Catholics across the nation.

The apparent contradiction troubles Viall's supporters at St. Rose, and they're angry with Bishop Anthony Pilla and anyone who questions their former pastor.

In fact, a priest during a July Mass asked parishioners to pray for Viall's speedy vindication, and a flier inserted into bulletins at Sunday Masses July 14 urged church members to fight for his reinstatement.

During a July 31 parish meeting, some parishioners laughed at and jeered diocesan officials when they urged compassion for abuse victims. Families suspected of helping prosecutors have been attacked in online forums and parish meet ings.

"He is just such a great example of what we believe in, in our faith," church member Marilyn Kenner said after the meeting. "As far as we're concerned, this is spiritual warfare."

Viall's lawyer said the priest is unable to comment on the allegations because they are being investigated by church and civil authorities.

For those individuals who say they experienced his advances, Viall's suspension is long-delayed justice.

One 60-year-old man who said he was abused by Viall said the priest's actions have bothered him for 47 years. The man, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, said he awaits the day Viall and other abusive priests are sent to prison along with Martin Louis, a former diocesan priest convicted of sexual crimes.

"I'm more than happy to forgive all these guys their sins as long as they're sitting next to Martin," he said.

Slow seduction The seduction started slowly, the older man recalls.

Viall told him that he was a special altar boy, and pulled him out of class to serve funerals and other functions at St. Jerome in Cleveland. Viall became friends with his family, and won their confidence to take the youth to Cedar Point and on trips to CYO camps, the former altar boy said.

Later, the man said, came dirty jokes, sexual discussions and offers of alcohol. There were gifts and late-night swimming trips at the seminary, where the former altar boy said he was encouraged to swim naked.

On a trip to Washington, D.C., when he was 13, the man said he and Viall stayed in the same room and that the priest told him to take off his pajamas and come into his twin bed wearing only one of the priest's T-shirts. When he complied, the priest threw his arms and legs over the young boy and began to breathe heavily as they lay in bed together, the man recalls.

In the flier circulated at St. Rose Church, supporters of Viall said the recent allegations represent the first time in a 49-year career the priest has even been accused of improper conduct with children.

But it was as early as 1955, the year after the priest's ordination, that the man said Viall began to abuse him.

A second man also has come forward to prosecutors, saying he was abused by Viall as an altar boy in the early 1970s at St. Phillip and James. Many of the details in the allegations are similar, including Viall urging the boy to wear his T-shirt to bed.

In retrospect, some former parishioners said Viall has often shown an inordinate interest in boys. For nearly all of his priesthood, Viall went on unchaperoned trips with them. He gave some youths the honorary title "boy bishop."

Former parishioners said Viall always seemed to have young teens around him, even when visiting church members' homes for social functions.

But for decades, as is the case with many priests suspected of abusing children, no one said anything.

Supporters fight back This image of Viall is unrecognizable to many current members of St. Rose, some of whom see the priest as the victim of a witch hunt. Critics say the church bypassed due process in suspending the priest publicly and damaging his reputation.

"A wonderful man, Father Viall. . . . He's an eloquent preacher. He's a very orthodox and holy man," said George Donnelly, a St. Rose parishioner and father of 13. "I think that we have the cart before the horse. You're guilty before you're proven innocent."

James Schneider said that when he was an altar boy, Viall was a model priest. When he got out of the Marine Corps at age 21, Viall gave him a job doing custodial work at St. Rose to help him pay for his education at Cleveland State University.

Now three of Schneider's sons are altar servers at St. Rose. He allowed one of his sons to travel alone with Viall and stay in the same room with the priest on a two-week trip to Europe. The priest told the young teen he wanted to take him to Europe because his health did not permit him to travel alone and the boy was his friend.

James Schneider, 46, trusts Viall completely. He calls him "without a doubt" one of the holiest men in his life.

For those on the other side, the parish opposition can be frightening.

"We are new arrivals to this cesspool," said one of the parents who complained.

The parents declined to speak publicly. Already, they say, they have been forced to seek new churches, and they and their children have been vilified in late-night phone calls and Internet chat rooms for speaking out. An unsigned newsletter inserted in bulletins indicated the parents who complained about Viall actually approved of alcohol being served to their children.

At the July church meeting, some hollered, "She's crazy. She's nuts" in reference to one of the parents who complained.

Most of the 200 parishioners attending supported Viall. "This is an attack on Father Viall, and it's an attack on this community of faithful believers. He is devout. He is religious. He is a man of God," parishioner Lloyd Hemphill said after the meeting.

Tradition survives At St. Rose, the hierarchical church survives, from the cleric saying the Latin Mass facing away from the congregation down to the black biretta, the traditional square hat with silk trim, worn by the priest. It is an environment that does not brook dissent.

Supporters see Viall as a charismatic, inspiring preacher who would visit them in the hospital and be by their side through illnesses of loved ones.

For those who believe in him, it is inconceivable Viall would abuse children, several said. Some say they're frustrated that authorities haven't released details of the complaints against Viall.

But the Catholic Church, reeling from the clergy sex abuse scandal, has committed itself to investigating allegations and caring for those who say they were abused.

In the uproar at St. Rose, concern for victims has not always been a priority.

At a weekday Mass in July, the Rev. Sean Donnelly added his own prayer of the faithful that made no mention of abuse victims: "We pray for the speedy return and vindication of Father Viall."

At the parish meeting, Sister Rita Mary Harwood, diocesan secretary for parish life and development, and the Rev. Lawrence Jurcak, director of the clergy personnel board, were jeered when they spoke of extending pastoral care to people who have been sexually molested.

But Harwood and Jurcak, in the face of angry parishioners, urged church members not to ignore the suffering of those who claim to be victims of Viall.

"My heart grieves terribly for these individuals," Jurcak said.

Several times, the slightly built nun urged sympathy for abuse victims in quiet and prayerful tones. "No child should suffer harm at the hands of clergy. That should be our primary concern," Harwood said.

And when they learned parents who raised concerns this year were being harassed, the two professional men who said they had been abused said they decided to come forward. One of them said it was painful to risk emotional trauma as well as the wrath of Viall's supporters.

In the end, it was a simple moment that gave him the will to speak out. It was seeing the sheer innocent joy of childhood on the face of his preteen son when the boy brought home a frog from a pond.

"When I saw him with the frog, this is what I must have been, what I was like at 11 and 12 years old, before Viall had his way with me."

 
 

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