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  Bishop D'Arcy: Abuse Claims Credible
Speaks to St. John New Haven Parish about Late Priest

By Kevin Leininger
Fort Wayne News Sentinel
November 11, 2002

Telling parishioners in New Haven they had a right to hear the truth, Bishop John M. D'Arcy this weekend said accusations of abuse against their former priest "appear to be credible" - and encouraged any other victims to come forward.

Sitting in the congregation was one of several women who claim to have been sexually abused by Father William Ehrman, who served New Haven's St. John the Baptist Catholic Church between 1939 and 1964, as well as several other churches in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend before retiring in 1970.

"The bishop was very forthright, honest and apologetic," said Jane Schuckel, 55, who last month filed a report with the diocese claiming Ehrman exposed himself to her in 1968 while he was priest at St. Paul Catholic Church in Fort Wayne. She was 19 at the time.

"I'm pleased," Schuckel said. "He was speaking to all of us (victims). He said what Michelle and I wanted to hear."

D'Arcy's confession to St. John members came in response to Michelle Bennett's allegations that Erhman had fondled her repeatedly while she attended the church's school in the 1950s - allegations reported by The News-Sentinel on Oct. 14. Although he mentioned neither Bennett nor Ehrman by name while addressing the congregation, his reference to the story made it clear he was referring to them.

D'Arcy said last month he would speak to the parish if the investigation into Bennett's story supported her claims.

Standing at the front of the congregation at Saturday evening Mass, D'Arcy said diocesan officials had "talked to others of things that were wrong, sinful and painful. It's not easy to say that, but bishops should be in the parish not just for the good times, but during painful times, too.

"Christ said, 'I am the way, the truth and the life.' The church is a place of truth, and you have a right to hear the truth."

Friday afternoon, D'Arcy met not only with Bennett but with a niece of Father Ehrman, "who knew his good side."

At the meeting with Bennett, D'Arcy said, he "apologized on behalf of Christ. It was a beautiful conversation, and I commend her for coming forward." Ehrman's family and friends, D'Arcy added, know his good side and are brokenhearted by the apparently truthful allegations against a man who served the church for 48 years. He asked worshippers to pray for Bennett, for Ehrman's forgiveness, for his family, and for the church itself.

Schuckel, who works for ITT in Fort Wayne, decided to tell her story to Vicar General the Rev. Robert Schulte on Oct. 17 after reading The News-Sentinel's account of Bennett's abuse. "It was wonderful to have some validity to what I experienced," she said. "And I wanted to support Michelle."

Schuckel said her problems with Ehrman began when she was 15, after her mother sent her to see the priest for counseling on sex-related matters. Breasts, she said he told her, "were for fondling."

Four years later, still having problems dealing with her sexuality, Schuckel said she visited Ehrman at the St. Paul rectory in downtown Fort Wayne. According to Schulte's report, Schuckel said "Father Ehrman then proceeded to stand up and have her stand close to him. He told her not to look down, as he fumbled around.

"She did look down, and noticed he had exposed his penis. Jane also remembers Father Ehrman took her into his bedroom and sat her on a chest at the end of his bed and kissed her on the lips."

After that incident, Schuckel said she did not see Ehrman again until years later, when he was staying at the Saint Anne Home in Fort Wayne. "He asked her at that point if she was still mad at him," Schulte's report states, "acknowledging what he had done many years before."

The wife of a Fort Wayne attorney, who asked not to be identified, said Ehrman fondled her while she was a nurse at the Catholic retirement home.

Even though Schuckel believes her Catholic upbringing and the actions of Ehrman have negatively affected her life - she has been divorced twice and has wrestled with feelings of guilt and depression over the years - she said D'Arcy's forthright admission satisfied her need for closure. "I married the wrong man because I was obsessed with marrying a virgin, and pictured my soul as a solid black sheet of me," Schuckel said. "I'm just now getting control of my life back."

Bennett, 60, now an elementary school teacher in Battle Creek, Mich., felt much the same way after her 80-minute meeting with D'Arcy and Schulte on Friday afternoon.

"The bishop was very humble, caring and concerned about what happened to me," she said. "He just kept telling me it took courage to come forward. But it took courage for him to do what he did, too. I'm proud of him; he's truly a great leader of our church."

Bennett said D'Arcy said he was concerned about how to best address the subject in church over the weekend, because there were sure to be children.

"I told him he had a lot of responsibility to a lot of people. Children need to know how to defend themselves."

Both women hope D'Arcy's admission will silence those who have criticized them and others for exposing Ehrman and other abusive priests.

"It made me so angry when I read the letter to the editor (in the Nov. 6 News-Sentinel) calling the 'attacks' on Father Ehrman 'scurrilous,' " Schuckel said. "Even my own family didn't believe me - he was 'a wonderful man.' But why would we make this up?"

D'Arcy concluded his homily by telling the parishioners at St. John's that he will continue to work "to put this terrible curse that has been put on the church behind us. The church is the body of Christ. What affects one of us affects all of us.

"So pray for more priests. But not just for more priests, but for noble priests."

 
 

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