Shock, Despair at Allegations
Some thought priest 'walked on water'

By Gwen O'Brien
South Bend Tribune
June 8, 2003

Debbie Hayes recalls the day her mother died: July 14, 2001.

Mary Wishin had not been conscious for two days. The Rev. Paul LeBrun, a close family friend, walked into the hospital room at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, and Hayes told her 79-year-old mother she had a visitor.

"I said, 'Mom, Father Paul is here,' and she opened her eyes, looked at him and took her last breath," Hayes said. "I think she probably thought, 'OK, I can go now because a priest is here.' "

LeBrun gave Wishin her last rites and distributed Communion to everyone in the room, Hayes remembers.

At the time, it was a comfort to Hayes to have LeBrun there when her mother passed. Now she says she's disgusted at the thought.

In September 2001, Hayes' then-31-year-old nephew told her LeBrun had repeatedly fondled him between 1980 and 1985. He was 9 years old when the abuse allegedly began.

"I just thank God my mother's dead, so she didn't have to deal with this," Hayes said.

On May 30, LeBrun, a Holy Cross priest, was arrested at his South Bend home on a Phoenix felony charge of sexual misconduct with a minor. The count alleges that LeBrun fondled a 12-year-old boy in October 1991.

LeBrun served at Little Flower Catholic Church in South Bend for several years in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1986, he left Little Flower for the Phoenix Diocese, where he worked at two parishes. He came back to Little Flower in 1993 and served there until 1999.

The Tribune published an article on Sept. 22 in which four men in their early to mid-30s accused LeBrun of sexually abusing them in the 1980s. These cases could not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run out for them.

The alleged victims asked that their real names not be used to protect their identities. Hayes' nephew was called David in the article.

"We thought Paul walked on water. We all did, the whole family," Hayes said. "We don't think of ourselves as easily won over."

A part of the family

LeBrun met David and his mother through another family when LeBrun was a seminarian in the late 1970s, according to Hayes. Hayes' sister was a single mother, and Hayes said LeBrun became a trusted friend to her sister and a male role model for David.

One by one, LeBrun befriended members of the extended family. Hayes said he was invited to their parties. He christened their babies and married their children. LeBrun's jolly, bearded face appears often in 23 years' worth of family photographs.

[Photo Captions: 1) Debbie and John Hayes of Sturgis once considered the Rev. Paul LeBrun a trusted friend. But when their nephew came forward last fall with allegations of sexual abuse by LeBrun, the Hayeses and their family turned their back on the priest. "I think about being deceived for all those years, and it's almost like, why didn't I see through this?" said John Hayes. Tribune Photo / Jim Rider. 2) LeBrun: According to Debbie Hayes, this picture of her and the Rev. Paul LeBrun was taken last July at a beach house her family was renting in Michigan City. That was two months before Hayes' nephew told her LeBrun had fondled him as a child. At the time this photo was taken, LeBrun was apparently still working at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City and stopped by the vacation home on his way back to South Bend.]

"It just makes me sick when I look at the pictures. I feel cheated," she said last week.

"It just makes you want to take scissors out and one by one cut him out," added Debbie's husband, John Hayes.

One picture in particular haunts her. It's a photograph of David dated Dec. 24, 1980.

"It bothers me because I know it was right after his 10th birthday. (David) said the abuse started a few weeks before his birthday. He looks so little," Debbie said of David.

Debbie said David told her the abuse happened once during a family party.

"My mother would have one big party a year after a Notre Dame home game," Debbie said. "(David) told me one of the times, Paul molested him in my mother's house in an upstairs bedroom while the party was going on."

Shocking news

Debbie and John Hayes contend they probably would not have believed the allegations made against LeBrun in The Tribune's Sept. 22 article if their nephew had not come forward.

"It's easy to understand how people could not be able to accept (it) because of Paul's ability of winning people over," John said.

"Without information from someone you know so well (David), I wouldn't have believed it," Debbie said. "I understand those people who believed he didn't do it, but there's too many victims to ignore it."

Nancy Ruotanen, a Little Flower parishioner for more than 35 years, said she was surprised when she read the alleged victim accounts in The Tribune.

"I was definitely shocked, but I did not disbelieve it," said Ruotanen, who moved to Indianapolis with her husband in December.

"I thought it sounded credible, and I was anxious to get to church and find out what the clergy would tell us," Ruotanen said.

She couldn't remember which priest said Mass at Little Flower that Sunday.

"He was kind of neutral, which was a little surprising. I thought he would say it's not true," Ruotanen said. "He made a big point that it was alleged, just remember it's just alleged."

Anger and disappointment

Ruotanen remembers attending a social engagement in the weeks after the article was published. At the get-together were several Little Flower parishioners, she said. Some debated whether the allegations could possibly be true.

Ruotanen later drove a longtime friend home, and the woman broke down and told her that one of the victims was her son.

"I was just angry, extremely angry, and I was just so saddened that he had to go through that," Ruotanen said of her friend's son.

Ruotanen attended a November meeting at Little Flower regarding the allegations against LeBrun.

It was an opportunity for members of the parish to ask Holy Cross officials about it. Attending were the Rev. William Dorwart, provincial superior of the congregation's Indiana Province, and the Rev. Robert Epping, first assistant provincial.

Also there, according to Ruotanen, were two mothers of alleged victims and an alleged victim.

"Two mothers talked about their children, and one young man talked about his experience, and still LeBrun supporters said, 'Paul said he didn't do it and I believe him,' " Ruotanen said.

"I felt in some people's view, to be against Father LeBrun was somehow being against the Catholic Church and against your faith," Ruotanen said.

She thinks the Holy Cross order or the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend should have been upfront about why LeBrun was leaving Little Flower in 1999.

"I definitely think parishioners needed to know why he was leaving," Ruotanen said.

"I still have great affection for Little Flower, but not because of the clergy but because of the people," Ruotanen said. "The people of Little Flower, in my opinion, are the church."

Where from here?

Debbie Hayes was thrilled when she found out on May 30 LeBrun had been arrested.

"I was ecstatic. I got on the phone and called the rest of the relatives. Thank God," she said.

She and her husband, John, are eager for the Arizona case to go to trial.

"I am hopeful that this will finally put everyone in the family at peace," she said while sitting with John on the front lawn of their Sturgis home.

"If he'd just admit it," said John.

"And apologize," Debbie said, finishing his sentence. "Knowing (LeBrun), he'll go all the way. He'll take it to a jury trial."

She says her nephew is not very hopeful that LeBrun will be convicted.

"He commented the other day that (LeBrun) will get out of this, that he always does," Debbie said. "There was no doubt in (David's) mind."

LeBrun's local attorney, Martin Kus, has said LeBrun looks forward to his day in court so he can clear his name.

LeBrun remained in the LaPorte County Jail Saturday night, awaiting extradition to Phoenix. Kus said Phoenix authorities may transport LeBrun early this week.

Kus said LeBrun had visitors Friday.

"Some friends from South Bend came. And (today) and Monday, some family from out-of-town are coming in, and we've arranged to have visitation," Kus said.

Staff writer Gwen O'Brien:

(574) 235-6333


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