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  'We're Still Waiting' It Was More Than 50 Years Ago That Michelle Locke Says She Was Molested by Rev. William J. Ehrman

By Kevin Leininger
Fort Wayne News Sentinel
October 14, 2002

On Sept. 28, 1963, Michelle Bennett and Bill Locke were married in the rectory of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in New Haven. But what should have been a joyous day was haunted by ghosts of the past for the bride, who claims to have been molested in the same room a decade earlier - by the very priest performing the ceremony.

Father William J. Ehrman died in 1983; the marriage, three years later. And if that were the end of Bennett's story, she would not be so determined to tell it today. But Bennett's ordeal lives on, she says, not only because of what one priest did 50 years ago, but because of what the church continues to do - or fails to do.

Included in Bennett's criticism is Bishop John D'Arcy of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, who has received national praise for his efforts to stop sexual abuse by priests.

Bennett's son, Randall Locke, claims to have notified the Fort Wayne diocese in 1998 of his mother's alleged abuse by Father Ehrman - notification D'Arcy and other diocesan officials say they never received. Bennett and Locke did meet July 3 of this year with the local diocese's vicar general, the Rev. Robert C. Schulte - but say they have yet to receive an official response to their allegations. (The vicar general is appointed by the bishop to assist the bishop in various ways.)

"They told us to read the report and sign it, and said they would get back to us in a few days. We're still waiting," said Locke, who is a schoolteacher in Stuart, Fla. "I drove 1,200 miles and spilled my guts, but what good did it do? They said the bishop had more pressing issues. What can be more pressing than this?"

Process in place

D'Arcy, however, says the local diocese has followed guidelines established by the diocese and by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which in June approved its "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

According to that document, the "first obligation of the church with regard for the victims is for healing and reconciliation." It also calls on the diocese to "have mechanisms in place to respond promptly to any allegation where there is reason to believe that sexual abuse of a minor has occurred."

Whether the local diocese is adequately doing that, however, remains a source of dispute.

"Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth and the life,' " D'Arcy said. "Our obligation is to find the truth. We are investigating this; we are talking to older priests and sisters who were there at the time, and plan to talk to students who were there if necessary. It's rare someone comes forward to claim abuse when none happened, but everyone has a right to their reputation - even a priest who's dead. And even if we can't verify what she said, it doesn't mean she's lying.

"The diocese is not just the bishop. Father Schulte told them I would be happy to meet with them, and I will. But we want to complete the investigation first." D'Arcy insists Bennett and her family were never told he was not present July 3 because he had more "pressing" business. According to diocesan policy, he said, the bishop does not attend the initial meeting with alleged abuse victims. In any case, D'Arcy said, he was unaware of the July 3 meeting and was in Boston at the time attending a family celebration. Nor were Bennett and her family told he would be there. The meeting was scheduled at a time they chose, he added.

"We responded promptly" to Bennett's claims of abuse, D'Arcy said.

A diocesan panel formed to investigate allegations of sexual abuse will meet for the first time Dec. 9, D'Arcy said. Bennett's allegations - and the results of the diocese's investigation - may be among the cases discussed. Most members of the panel, D'Arcy said, will be lay people, not church officials. "But that doesn't mean we have to wait until December to resolve this," he said.

If the church's investigation ultimately supports Bennett's claims, D'Arcy said, "we will go to the parish, as painful as that will be, and try to find out if anyone else was abused and to offer counseling and spiritual care. When abuse occurs, it's rare that it happens to only one person."

Bennett is the only person to claim abuse by Father Ehrman, however, D'Arcy said. This is the second time in this diocese abuse claims have been filed against a priest who has died, he added.

'Is this right?'

Regardless of the investigation's outcome, Bennett still bears the psychological scars of what she says her priest did to her - scars made visible by the tears that easily come when she talks about her past.

Born Dec. 12, 1942, in St. Joseph Hospital in Fort Wayne to Benjamin and Rosemary Bennett, Michelle Bennett was like many other Catholic girls in New Haven. She, her parents and three siblings attended Mass faithfully and, during the week, class at St. John's school.

"I can't remember exactly when it started," said Bennett, who left New Haven after her wedding and today teaches fourth grade in Battle Creek, Mich. "Father Ehrman would send a note to the nun, asking me to go to the rectory. It was a dark room, with a big desk in the corner, and I can almost remember the smell. I never had to take my clothes off, but he would unbutton my blouse. I can't even remember if I wore a bra at the time. But he would put what seemed to be big, thick hands on my breasts or between my legs. I remember thinking, 'Is this right? What would Dad think?' "

Bennett said she doesn't remember how often Father Ehrman invited her to the rectory, but believes it began in 1954 - about the time she was in fourth grade - and continued for two or three years. "After that, maybe he just decided I was too old. I don't know."

Although Bennett said she never forgot what was allegedly done to her - this is not a story of sexual abuse repressed and only later recalled - she never told anyone her secret until she was hospitalized in 1979 after contemplating suicide. Only then, during 45 days of therapy at Mercywood Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., and eight subsequent years of private therapy, did she begin to exorcise the inner demons that had tormented her for so long.

Ironically, it was at that very moment her decades-long silence seemed most justified. "I never thought my parents would have done anything even if I had told them what Father Ehrman did," she said. "You didn't buck the system; Catholic girls did as they were told. I accepted the blame for what happened because priests were 'God's people' and could do no wrong. Therefore, I was bad. It's worse to be molested by a priest than it is to be molested by your own father.

"But when I did finally tell Mom while I was in the hospital, she just said, 'Forget it. He didn't mean it.' "

Confronting the church

Bennett's newfound willingness to confront her own past ultimately led her to confront the church as well - and to demand that its commitment to heal the wounds inflicted by abusive priests extend beyond mere words.

That fight has been led most vigorously by Bennett's son Randall Locke, 32, and began not long after a tribunal of the Diocese of Kalamazoo in 1991 annulled the marriage between Bennett and Bill Locke - a decision Bennett and her son believe was based at least in part on her claims of abuse by her priest.

Although neither Bennett nor her former husband put all the blame for their failed marriage on the alleged abuse, both are convinced it played a key role. Her mistrust of men and fear of intimacy, she said, manifested itself in ways not conducive to marital bliss.

"After sex I would go into the bathroom, wedge myself between the toilet and the wall and just rock and cry - and not even know why," Bennett said.

"I thought they were tears of joy at first," said former husband Bill Locke, who now lives in Jacksonville, Fla. "Later on, I blamed it on me. She never told me what the priest did to her until after the divorce. But I believe it did happen. It's not a figment of her imagination."

Bill Locke, who is not Catholic, said he contested the annulment because it "was incredible that they would grant one after 20 years of marriage." But it wasn't the annulment that angered son Randall Locke.

"My mother believed the (Kalamazoo) diocese would act on the information (of alleged abuse), or at least believed diocese personnel would inquire about her allegation. According to the diocese, no one did due to 'confidentiality.' "

On May 30, 2002, Randall Locke received a letter from Michael L. Chojnowski, attorney for the Diocese of Kalamazoo. Denying that Bennett's claims of abuse were a factor in the marriage tribunal's decision to annul her marriage to Bill Locke, Chojnowski wrote: "Your mother had ample opportunity, after reaching the age of majority, to have reported the alleged assault to the appropriate authorities, or taken appropriate actions as permitted by law. Members of the Kalamazoo Diocesan Marriage Tribunal were under no legal authority to report any such allegations, which were sketchy at best.

"Your phone calls to the diocesan offices have been upsetting to the staff there. We request that any future correspondence to the Kalamazoo Diocese be in writing, preferably addressed to me."

"Randy just wanted somebody from the Kalamazoo diocese to call and ask if I was OK," Bennett said. "If they are doing this to me, what are they doing to others?"

Three options

Bennett and her son know some will ask what they expect the church to do about her allegations 50 years after the alleged abuse and nearly 20 years after the death of her alleged abuser. In their meeting with Vicar General Schulte, they asked the diocese to choose one of three responses designed to answer that question:

That "Rev." be removed from Father Ehrman's headstone in Fort Wayne's Catholic Cemetery - an attempt to impose in death the punishment that can be meted out on living priests who abuse their office.

Even if the diocese wanted to do that, D'Arcy said, it could not. "The tombstone is the family's property," he said. "I would leave the dead to God; I have an obligation to be a pastor to the living."

"But even in death," said son Randall Locke, "there should be consequences for your actions."

That the church compensate Bennett for her hospitalization and subsequent years of counseling - a cost Locke estimates at $250,000.

That the diocese place an ad in the New Haven newspaper stating its concern about child abuse by priests and offering to listen and offer counseling as necessary.

A priest for 50 years

Despite Bennett's allegations against Father Ehrman, some former parishioners remember him as a faithful priest incapable of doing what Bennett has alleged.

"He was priest here when I came to the church in 1963," said Barbara North, who today manages the office at St. John the Baptist Church. "I never heard anything said against him."

"I can't believe he would do anything like that," added an Albion woman who attended class at St. John's school about the time Bennett did. "I went to school there for eight years, and Father Ehrman married me. He was a good priest. I never even heard a rumor against him."

William J. Ehrman was born in Fort Wayne on Sept. 17, 1894, and ordained on June 10, 1922. He served parishes in Kokomo, Michigan City and Kendallville before arriving at St. John the Baptist in New Haven in 1939, where he was pastor until 1964. From 1964 to 1970, he served as pastor at St. Paul's Catholic Church in Fort Wayne.

Purifying the church

Dr. Michael O'Hara, a Florida psychiatrist who has treated other women allegedly abused by priests and who is also a friend of Bennett's, said he considers her claims of molestation to be credible.

"Her story is, unfortunately, typical," O'Hara said. "I've seen a lot of people abused in childhood, and one feature in those who have a reasonable degree of mental health is that they feel shame that it happened." That's one reason, he said, Bennett kept quiet for so long.

Ironically, said son Randall Locke, it was the Catholic Church's well-publicized problem of abusive priests that ultimately gave her the courage to come forward publicly: She realized she was not alone, and that what happened to her was not her fault.

"At that time, she could not say 'no,' " O'Hara said. "It was a form of rape; he was in a position of power. It's good for her to talk about this now, to realize she's not a powerless 11-year-old. The church isn't dealing with these victims in a way that imitates the life of Christ. A good priest would care about the victim, not about a lawsuit. Anyone who would do this is a beast, not a priest." Bennett has shown symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, he added.

O'Hara, who described himself as a devout Catholic, believes Ehrman's decision to marry Bennett and Locke in the same room in which the abuse allegedly occurred reveals a "disturbed" attempt to exert power. The couple were not married in the church because Locke was not a Catholic, Bennett said. O'Hara believes God is using exposure of abusive priests to purify the church - a sentiment similar to that expressed repeatedly by D'Arcy.

Faith and forgiveness

Bennett's son Randall Locke acknowledges anger is one motivation for his attempt to get the church to acknowledge what he's convinced happened to his mother long before he was born.

"My childhood ended in 1979 when I was 10 (the year his mother was hospitalized)," Locke said. "The extent of my resolve to punish those people is endless. She has to find justice in her lifetime. Institutions change only when the consequences hurt."

D'Arcy, meanwhile, said he wants to help Bennett stop hurting. "The diocese stands ready to give spiritual and pastoral assistance," he said. "While the diocese seeks to find the truth in this matter, I ask for prayers for all concerned."

Those prayers will include Bennett's, who said her ordeal has not shaken her ability to forgive or her faith in God.

"I gave up confession the day I left the hospital, but I've never even thought about leaving the church," she said. "I've always believed God will take care of you if you do the right thing. I'm not speaking out of hatred or the need for revenge, but if the church is doing this to me, what is it doing to other people? But if I saw Father Ehrman today, I'd probably put my arms around him if he just said he was sorry."

Bennett didn't know it, but her talk of repentance and forgiveness seemed to fulfill the promise made by a sign in front of the New Haven church and school she attended so long ago - the place she learned to love, fear and mistrust the church she refuses to abandon.

"Broken souls mended," it says.

 
 

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