‘Victims are suffering’: Advocates call on Cleveland diocese to release names of 145 clergy accused of child sexual abuse in 2002 report

The Plain Dealer - cleveland.com [Cleveland OH]

April 10, 2024

By Cory Shaffer

National and statewide advocates on Wednesday called on the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland to release the names of 145 current or former priests who were identified in a Cuyahoga County grand jury report as child sexual abusers but whose names have remained a secret for more than two decades.

“We cannot protect kids with secrecy and silence,” Claudia Vercellotti, who leads the Ohio chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said at a news conference on the sidewalk outside of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Cleveland.

Vercellotti and Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the Boston-based research organization BishopAccountability.org, also released the names of 50 former priests or clergymen who worked in Cleveland and were credibly accused of child sexual abuse in other dioceses but whom the diocese here has yet to name.

The Cleveland diocese has named 50 priests on its website as having been credibly accused of sexual abuse, and two more who have been either suspended or had their duties restricted as a result of sexual abuse claims that are still under investigation by the church.

The names included Brother Paul Botty, an English teacher at St. Joseph High School who was removed from public ministry in 1986 after a grand jury indicted him on multiple felony charges for sexually abusing five boys in the school’s dormitory from 1983 to 1985.

The Plain Dealer reported that the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland launched an investigation into Botty after it learned of the allegations. He was sentenced to more than seven years in prison. He died in 2007.

Doyle and Vercellotti called on the diocese’s bishop, the Rev. Edward Malesic, to add the names to the diocese’s public list or release a statement explaining why he has not done so.

“He is leaving dozens and dozens of abusers off his list, and he knows this,” Doyle said.

The pair also called on Malesic to support reforms to Ohio’s statutes of limitations in civil and criminal cases involving allegations of sexual abuse. State law forbids prosecutors from charging — and victims from suing — a child sex abuser after the victim’s 30th birthday.

Child USA, a nonprofit that advocates for the expansion of statute of limitations for survivors of child sexual abuse, gives Ohio a “D” grade for its statute of limitations laws. Three other states received a “D,” and only two — Oregon and North Dakota — received an “F” grade.

A spokeswoman for the diocese released a statement that did not address the calls to publicly identify the 145 priests named in the report.

“The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland is steadfastly committed to the protection and safety of children, as demonstrated in its robust policies regarding background checks, its education and training, its commitment to reporting all allegations of child sexual abuse to civil authorities, and by the fact that no cleric in the Diocese of Cleveland against whom a substantiated allegation has been made is permitted to ever again serve in ministry,” the statement said.

It said that the diocese names clerics whose abuse allegations have been substantiated by the church and who are in of the Cleveland diocese.

The probe into accused predators

The advocates referred to a grand jury inquest that then-Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason launched in 2002. Mason joined a flurry of prosecutors across the country to examine allegations of sexual abuse in the church following revelations of widespread abuse.

Grand jurors identified 1,000 potential victims of sexual abuse, with accusations against 496 possible sexual offenders, of whom 145 were priests, the Plain Dealer reported at the time.

Of the identified priests, 64 still lived in the Greater Cleveland area at the time, court records say.

However, the grand jury only handed up 11 indictments total. Just one priest was charged. The bishop at the time, Anthony Pilla, was investigated for obstructing official business over his handling of abuse allegations, but the grand jury declined to indict him.

Mason initially said he would support the release of the grand jury’s full report. The diocese hired an attorney from Jones-Day who threatened to sue Mason if his office released the document.

Mason later said a review of the law prevented his office from releasing the document, and he asked Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Brian Corrigan whether he could release limited documents that were handed over to other public agencies, including the Department of Children and Family Services.

Corrigan ruled that the state’s secrecy laws regarding the grand jury outweighed the public interest in knowing whether religious leaders had been accused of sexually abusing children, and he ordered the documents to remain secret.

The county’s current prosecutor, Michael O’Malley, said in 2018, after prosecutors in Pennsylvania released a similar grand jury report, that his hands were tied by Corrigan’s decision.

The calls for more

Doyle and Vercellotti said the Cleveland diocese remains one of the most secretive and least transparent in the nation when it comes to informing the public about accused sexual predators within its ranks.

Even when the it does identify a priest as having been credibly accused of sexual abuse, the diocese releases little information about the allegations. Doyle pointed to a now-dead priest who she said was accused of sexually abusing multiple girls, then left the country before returning to preach in the Cincinnati-area, where he also worked as a family doctor until he died in 2009.

The diocese’s website only lists the priest’s name, the date that he was ordained and that he is deceased.

“This is what Bishop Malesic is choosing not to tell you,” Doyle said. “He’s not telling you this even though he knows the victims are suffering.”

Doyle compared the information that the diocese provides to that released by St. Ignatius High School, a Jesuit school, after the Jesuit order had substantiated sexual abuse allegations made by a former student against the school’s chaplain, Francis Canfield, that occurred in 2011-2012.

The school released multiple documents, a lengthy statement and a Frequently Asked Questions section on its website detailing the time period the abuse occurred, when the school learned of the abuse allegations, how it responded and other information.

“Bishop Malesic has given almost no information about abusers within the diocese,” Doyle said.

Vercellotti said that it’s imperative for the diocese to identify priests, even if they are dead. It helps the victims of the abuse to feel acknowledged and validated, and it could also shed light on who knew and allowed the abuse to occur and lead to other victims coming forward.

She also pointed to a case from her hometown of Toledo, where a dead former priest was identified as the killer of a nun in an investigation that began with an allegation of sexual abuse.

“There’s nothing good that comes from letting these horrible, horrible crimes go to the grave with these predators,” Vercellotti said.

Doyle added: “If [Malesic’s] this protective of deceased clerics, you can imagine that he’s even more protective of living clerics.”