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  Bishop Puts Heat on Three Priests
Griffin Threatens to Use Power in Abuse Cases to Defrock Them If They Don't Leave Voluntarily

By Dennis M. Mahoney
Columbus Dispatch
January 30, 2003

Columbus Bishop James A. Griffin wants three diocesan priests involved in sex-abuse cases to resign from the priesthood. If they don't, he said yesterday, he'll ask the Vatican to kick them out.

Meanwhile, the chairwoman of the Columbus Diocese's sex-abuse review board said that Griffin this week revealed an allegation against a fourth priest, whom she declined to identify.

Griffin announced that the Rev. Martin Weithman, Monsignor Joseph Fete and the Rev. Michael Ellifritz have been told they may ask the Vatican for "laicization" -- returning them to the laity from the priesthood. Only the Vatican can do that.

If they don't ask, the bishop said, he will begin the procedures for them, as allowed under the Roman Catholic Church's governing canon law.

The priests have 30 days to decide, said Tom Berg, diocesan spokesman.

Griffin would not answer questions yesterday because the cases are unresolved, Berg said.

All three priests are on leave and have been excluded from public ministry, including saying Mass. If they are not removed from priesthood, Berg said, Griffin will make their exclusion from ministry permanent, using his authority regarding sex-abuse cases.

Weithman was accused of molesting a teen-age boy, Dennis Palmer, in the late 1980s, but has denied the accusation. Fete admitted sexually abusing a teen-age boy from 1976 to '79; Ellifritz acknowledged he had what was described as "improper contact" with a boy in the early 1980s.

None of the priests could be reached for comment yesterday.

Weithman, 48, was pastor of Seton Parish in Pickerington. Fete, 54, was removed as pastor of St. Margaret of Cortona Church on the West Side in April. Until his retirement last July, Ellifritz, 61, was a chaplain at Riverside Methodist Hospital and lived at St. Mary Magdalene Church on the West Side.

Griffin acted in accordance with the unanimous recommendations of the seven-member review board. Yvette McGee Brown, board chairwoman, said its members agreed that the three must go.

"There is a point at which by your own conduct, you sacrifice the right to be a priest," she said.

The allegation regarding a fourth priest will be discussed by the board at its March meeting, McGee Brown said.

The review board, made up of six laypeople and a priest, believes that sexual attraction to young people can't be cured, only resisted through continued treatment, she said.

Because a priest is an authority figure, "The opportunity to use that power to harm children is too great a risk to take," she said.

Griffin acted under rules adopted by bishops last year in the wake of the nationwide cleric sex-abuse scandal. They call for abusive priests to be removed from public ministry and possibly forced out of the priesthood.

Allegations must be reported before the accuser is 28, and the three Columbus cases do not meet that guideline. But a bishop can ask the Vatican to waive the statute of limitations.

John Snider, the Lancaster lawyer representing Weithman, said he and the priest were "devastated" by Griffin's decision.

"I think it's a real tragedy for the Catholic Church and the priest that worked so hard to support the diocese and the bishop," Snider said.

"This guy has a 22- or 23-year history of service to this bishop and this diocese. For him to be stripped of his vocation because of allegations of one person is preposterous."

Snider said he believes Palmer lied.

Weithman has a canon lawyer, Snider said, and the priest will fight Griffin's action.

Palmer's attorney, Daniel Volkema of Columbus, said his client was surprised by the decision, mostly because the review board made its recommendation without meeting with either Palmer or Weithman.

"Dennis, I think, can't believe it came out that way" Volkema said. "He was expecting them to go the other direction, given the fact they didn't want to speak with him."

The attorney added, "He believes the right decision was made and . . . his concerns are with that parish (Seton), and he plans on keeping them in his prayers."

Palmer was paid $115,000 by the diocese last summer after he threatened to sue.

McGee Brown said that in the Weithman case, the board relied on statements by the priest and Palmer, and information the diocese gathered from acquaintances in the late 1980s.

While there was no evidence that Weithman and Palmer had sexual contact, she said, the board felt the priest acted improperly by having repeated contact with Palmer. She said Weithman's actions came even after Griffin warned priests about such conduct.

Seton parishioner Ann Richards called Weithman "a really talented person."

"I guess I'd never wish this on anybody. It's just a sad, sad day. Right or wrong . . . I think it's a real hard burden to put on anybody, for anybody to have to bear. I wish him the best," she said.

She said that, while the parish has had difficulty dealing with Weithman's removal, Monsignor William Maroon, the interim pastor, has made it easier.

"He's the most wonderful gift that we could ask for," she said.

dmahoney@dispatch.com

 
 

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