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  Woman Seeks Restitution for Abuse

By Kevin Leininger
Fort Wayne News Sentinel
July 16, 2005

If the wages of sin are death, Michele Bennett thinks being sexually abused by a priest should be worth at least $163,371.

So far, however, the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend has refused to pay most of the expenses Bennett attributes to her abuse by Father William Ehrman more than 50 years ago even though Bishop John D'Arcy has called Bennett's accusations "credible."

Some will say Bennett's quest for more than an apology makes her greedy, a liar or even un-Christian. To her, though, restitution would represent justice and, yes, even vengeance.

"I wouldn't have asked for money if (the diocese) had done the right thing in the beginning," said Bennett, who claimed to be seeking only peace of mind nearly three years ago when she first talked with me about her ordeal in the rectory of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in New Haven. "But the lawyers have told me nothing hurts them but money. I was 8 years old when I was put in jail (by abuse). That priest robbed me of my safety in the world.

"Doing this gives me power. It means I'm no longer a victim."

I'm not qualified to support or oppose Bennett's financial claim, which meticulously itemizes lost pay and money spent on counseling, hospitalization and other expenses of coping with three years of alleged abuse starting around 1954. But Bennett and her son, Randy, remain obviously troubled and angry over what they see as one priest's past sins of commission and the church's ongoing sins of omission.

Bennett is a 62-year-old teacher now, living in Battle Creek, Mich. When she and Bill Locke were married in 1963, Ehrman insisted he conduct the ceremony in the very room in which she had been fondled -- one last chance to exert control over her, she believes. The couple left New Haven soon after their wedding, which was annulled in 1986. Ehrman died in 1983.

Randy Locke, 35, who has been burning up the phone lines between the diocese and his home in Stuart, Fla., said D'Arcy's office has reimbursed Bennett $6,500 for medical bills she's had to pay since talking publicly about her abuse in 2002 -- the year an attorney for the Diocese of Kalamazoo scolded Locke for phoning the office there seeking help for his mother. But the Fort Wayne diocese has so far declined payment for earlier treatment received outside of its jurisdiction. Most of Bennett's medical bills came when she was hospitalized for 45 days in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1979, and for years of therapy from a doctor there.

"Requesting payment for therapy costs incurred many years ago is outside the scope of the diocese's procedures and assistance plan," Terri Johns, assistant to Vicar General Robert Schulte, wrote in a June 29 letter to Locke. "Assistance is not extended on the premise that it will completely compensate for all harm that is claimed. The diocese cannot change the past or erase it from memory.

"The diocese's procedures try to balance its desire and ability to help those who claimed to have been harmed while at the same time upholding its ability to properly support the many other pastoral needs of individuals within the diocese."

Johns, who recently resigned from the position for personal reasons, declined comment.

Locke, noting D'Arcy's recent report that the diocese has paid more than $1.3 million in claims in connection with 33 credible allegations against church workers since 1950, said: "It's easy to call a press conference. It's apparently not so easy to call my mom."

D'Arcy was unavailable for comment. But in a Dec. 31, 2003, letter, he told Locke the family should not have to look elsewhere for help. "This diocese, where the events of abuse were stated to have occurred, is the appropriate diocese to confront the issues."

Therein lies the family's frustration and dilemma: D'Arcy has acknowledged the credibility of Bennett's claim; the local diocese has made partial restitution and says it is the "appropriate" venue to settle all other claims. Yet, according to Johns' letter, those other claims may be someone else's responsibility, or might be denied if payment would harm other ministries and programs. Who's in charge here?

"The bishop asked my mom to total her bills. What number did he think he would find? If he wasn't going to pay, why ask Mom to tally the cost? What number is acceptable for being molested?" Locke said.

That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? Or the $163,371 question -- which is a lot less than the $3.3 million paid Roberta Saum this year by the Diocese of Santa Rosa, Calif., the largest settlement ever paid to a female victim of sex abuse by a priest.

Perhaps Bennett and I were both nave when I first reported her story, hoping the pain would go away simply by confronting and publicizing what had happened. If anything, her anger and fear of men may have worsened. That can happen when reality doesn't live up to expectations. And, in this case, how could it?

Less than a month after I first reported Bennett's story, D'Arcy spoke to parishioners during Mass at St. John's, acknowledging the church's sins and asking for forgiveness. It was a good first step, as even Bennett acknowledged. She's just increasingly frustrated that more hasn't happened since.

So a profound moral and spiritual issue has come down to money. Bennett clearly suffered real damage from what was done to her, and deserves some degree of compensation. All the regret in the world can't pay off her doctor bills, which is why Bennett will be teaching again next year instead of retiring, as she had planned to do.

"What do I want? I guess I want to give the church absolution," she said. "And, at this point, their penance is financial."

But even that won't be enough, as D'Arcy noted at the end of his letter to Locke. "I pray that you not be guided or motivated by the desire to punish. If that is the case, the healing you seek may never materialize."

A profoundly pastoral statement -- or one designed to protect the diocesan treasury? Whichever interpretation you prefer, D'Arcy's right: Money alone can't buy peace. Here's hoping Bennett and Locke find it, one way or another.

 
 

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