Breaking Silence

By James Pilcher
Cincinnati Enquirer
June 15, 2002

He promised to keep quiet about being abused as a boy by a Roman Catholic priest. In return, the priest agreed to be defrocked, or kicked out of the clergy.

But now, Bernard "Bernie" Gerhardstein is breaking his silence, alleging that the diocese and the priest have not kept their word.

Mr. Gerhardstein says that the Rev. Louis J. Holtz sexually abused him over the course of about 1+ years beginning in 1974, about the same time that the priest became close friends with the then-13-year-old boy's parents in rural Campbell County.

Mr. Gerhardstein says he first told the Covington Diocese about the abuse in 1995, later threatened to sue and eventually settled in August 1997 for an amount he won't reveal.

He also received $10,000 in a separate 1997 settlement with Father Holtz, an agreement that called for the priest to be voluntarily defrocked, or "laicized."

The settlement with the diocese also included a confidentiality agreement that Mr. Gerhardstein adhered to until he became suspicious that Father Holtz had not been defrocked -- a process that turns a priest back into a lay person with no abilities to perform the sacraments. Normally, such a process, considered arcane and complicated, requires the priest to volunteer, and it ultimately needs the approval of the pope.

"There is no accountability here -- they tell me something will happen, and it doesn't," says Mr. Gerhardstein, now 41 and living in Fort Thomas. He spoke to the Enquirer despite the confidentiality agreement.

Church officials acknowledge settling with Mr. Gerhardstein and suspending Father Holtz indefinitely in 1995 after Mr. Gerhardstein came forward with his allegations. But they would not talk about whether they believed such abuse actually took place against Mr. Gerhardstein.

"Father Holtz retired and was suspended, and yes, it was as a result of Mr. Gerhardstein's allegations," diocesan spokesman Tim Fitzgerald says.

Church officials also say that while they knew about some sort of agreement between Mr. Gerhardstein and the priest, they say they did not know it contained the requirement for Father Holtz to be defrocked.

When reached this week at his rural Kenton County home, where he now lives alone and does not present himself as a priest, Father Holtz would not comment about Mr. Gerhardstein or the settlements.

As for being defrocked, he says that he assumed that the diocese and the previous bishop, the Most Rev. Robert Muench, were "taking care of it."

Diocesan officials would not comment when asked whether Father Holtz had ever been accused of sexually abusing other children or whether the diocese had ever settled with any other alleged victims who had accused the priest.

Father Holtz denies abusing any other children.

"That's simply not true," Father Holtz, now 73, says.

National perspective

The new revelations come at a crucial time for the church both locally and nationally.

On Friday in Dallas, the U.S. Conference of Bishops adopted a new policy that calls for any priest who sexually abuses a minor to be barred from working as a priest or performing the sacraments publicly. The policy does not call for a priest to be automatically defrocked.

Father Holtz suffered a similar punishment as the result of Mr. Gerhardstein's allegations.

As for the local ramifications, the diocese recently has been named in two separate lawsuits stemming from alleged abuse by priests in Lexington, dating from a time when that city was part of the Covington diocese.

Kentucky dioceses have the distinction of having the most sexual abuse lawsuits in any state filed against them this year. So far, 130 suits have been filed out of at least 300 nationally since January.

And this week, the bishop of Lexington -- formerly the second-highest ranking official in the Covington diocese -- resigned after being accused of sexual misconduct.

In all, the Covington diocese has paid $3.2 million in settlements since 1989, with most of that being covered by insurance. Diocesan officials would not comment on whether that total figure involved settlements involving Father Holtz.

As the church considers abandoning confidentiality agreements, Mr. Gerhardstein's story also provides insight into how such agreements are reached, and how the church has tried to keep such cases quiet.

"The confidentiality agreement was the make-or-break issue for the diocese," says Cincinnati-based lawyer Andy Lipton, one of Mr. Gerhardstein's lawyers during the settlement talks. "The church demanded it. It was the ultimate deal breaker."

Friendship begins

Mr. Gerhardstein says Father Holtz first befriended him in 1974, soon after the priest arrived as chaplain for Holy Family convent and retirement home in Melbourne in rural Campbell County.

The facility's rectory, where Father Holtz lived, was near St. Phillip's church and elementary school, where Mr. Gerhardstein attended both school and Mass.

Soon after, a friendship began -- "We were both interested in the Old West," Mr. Gerhardstein says -- and the priest invited the boy back to the rectory for dinners and sleep-overs.

Once there, Mr. Gerhardstein says Father Holtz began giving him alcohol, even though he was only 13 years old.

"He liked manhattans, and boy, did I feel like a big shot at first," Mr. Gerhardstein says. "I loved the attention."

That soon changed. The overnight stays included wrestling matches that progressed into sexual fondling and molestation. Mr. Gerhardstein says he would curl up into a ball when the attacks began, but was unable to fend off the priest when he had been given alcohol.

"I kind of knew it was wrong, but I figured he was getting some kind of special dispensation because he was a priest. We were taught they were the right hand of God," Mr. Gerhardstein says.

Mr. Gerhardstein says the abuse stopped only when he grew strong enough to prevent the fondling. He says that soon after that, Father Holtz stopped inviting him to the rectory or to the camp that the priest owned on Kincaid Lake in Pendleton County.

He also says that at the same time the abuse was occurring, Father Holtz had become almost like one of the family. The priest even cooked a chili dinner for Mr. Gerhardstein's brothers and sisters (there were 11 children in all) when Mr. Gerhardstein's mother, Virginia, broke her leg after slipping on ice.

"Even if I had said anything, I felt like they (his parents and older siblings) wouldn't believe me," Mr. Gerhardstein says.

Family members recall that they were actually relieved that Father Holtz appeared to be taking "Bernie," who admits he was a difficult youth, under his wing.

"I remember going over there at about noon to talk to Father Holtz about something, and Bernie was still in his bedroom, asleep," says Mary Tremper, Mr. Gerhardstein's sister. "I thought that was kind of funny, but then chided myself for being such a prude. And soon after I got there, Bernie came charging out of there and started basically hitting Father Holtz.

"I just thought that was Bernie acting out, and Father Holtz played it as such. But knowing what I do now, there was a lot more going on than that."

"No other cases'

Father Holtz was ordained in May 1958. But now, because of his indefinite suspension, he cannot perform any public duties as a priest, cannot wear a collar or even present himself as a priest. He cannot say Mass, and he cannot perform the sacraments publicly. He says he still attends church as a lay person.

He says he knows of no other settlements or allegations against him. His 1995 retirement had nothing to do with Mr. Gerhardstein's accusations, he says.

"There were no other settlements, no other cases," Father Holtz says.

All told, Father Holtz lived in nine parishes or institutions in his 37-year career, with a variety of assignments, according to records provided by the diocese.

From 1964 to 1974, the priest served as a part-time teacher at Newport Central Catholic High, where he organized an Outdoor Camping Club for boys.

Father Holtz also served as both chaplain and director for the diocesan Boy Scout program during his career, and he was known to take groups of boys on camping trips, including to his camp at Kincaid Lake. In his younger days, he organized annual camping trips for several boys to the western United States.

Mr. Gerhardstein says Father Holtz also served as director of the youth group for both boys and girls at St. Phillip's.

"Most priests worked with children when they were younger," says Father Holtz.

He was serving as pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Burlington when he was suspended. While serving there, he oversaw construction of a new church and school building.

He also was stationed at two separate convents for nine years, including the post at Holy Family, where he met Mr. Gerhardstein.

"There was no moving around because I was a bad priest or anything like that," Father Holtz says.

Diocesan spokesman Mr. Fitzgerald says Father Holtz's career path was similar to other priests of that time, including being stationed at convents for nearly a decade.

"It was common for priests at that time, and if there were any other motives, I have no knowledge of that," Mr. Fitzgerald says. "I do not see any of this, including his stationing at the convents, as peculiar. Those were the needs of the diocese at that time, and he was fulfilling them."

Defrocked, or not

According to Mr. Gerhardstein's settlement with Father Holtz, the priest was to volunteer to have himself defrocked following the death of his mother, allowing Father Holtz to preside at his mother's funeral.

Immediately after the funeral, Father Holtz was to undergo voluntary "laicization," according to the settlement that Mr. Gerhardstein provided to the Enquirer.

Father Holtz's mother, Marie, died in January 2000.

The defrocking was key to Mr. Gerhardstein settling the complaint, he and his lawyers say.

"I wanted to make sure he could not use his standing as a priest to prey upon someone else," Mr. Gerhardstein says.

But while Father Holtz is suspended with basically the same impact as if he had been defrocked, he has never been formally "laicized."

Father Holtz says he does not go by the name "Father Holtz" anymore.

But he has been referred to as "Father Louis Holtz, retired" in at least two "Happy Birthday" messages in The Messenger, the weekly newspaper owned and operated by the diocese. One of those messages appeared last month.

Mr. Gerhardstein says those notices are what raised his suspicions.

"Now I see where he is referred to as a retired priest, and can see someone referring to him as such, because they don't know what I know," Mr. Gerhardstein says. "And he can still be a threat."

Diocesan officials maintain that they did not know what was in the side agreement between the priest and his alleged victim. Diocesan lawyer Kurt A. Phillipps also says he did not know of the contents of the agreement until shown it this week by the Enquirer.

They say Father Holtz never volunteered to be defrocked, so they should not be held responsible if the agreement wasn't met. Mr. Fitzgerald says the agreement between the diocese and Mr. Gerhardstein does not include any mention of defrocking Father Holtz.

But that settlement does include a clause that says the confidentiality agreement could be voided if Father Holtz breached his separate settlement, according to a version Mr. Gerhardstein provided the Enquirer.

Father Holtz says Bishop Muench told him he was handling it soon after his mother's death. Father Holtz would not say whether he would now seek to be defrocked, and the diocese would not comment on what might happen next.

When reached at his new post as the bishop of Baton Rouge, La., Bishop Muench denied any such knowledge or making any promises.

"I was never asked, I never agreed to nor did I have the authority to laicize Lou Holtz," Bishop Muench says.

As for the messages in the diocesan newspaper, Father Holtz says he had no knowledge of them or control over what was printed.

Mr. Fitzgerald, who also is editor of The Messenger, says Father Holtz's name has never been removed from the cycle of messages the paper prints each year. He says he does not know whether that situation would now be changed given Father Holtz's status.

"They've hidden behind the gay issue, they've hidden behind psychiatrists, and now the church is hiding behind legal issues when it comes to doing what is right," Mr. Gerhardstein says. "They just don't get it. They should have had the guy defrocked years ago, and now they say because of the law, they still haven't done it."

Mr. Fitzgerald says the diocese apologized to Mr. Gerhardstein for his ordeal; Mr. Gerhardstein's lawyer, Mr. Lipton, also remembers the gesture.

But Mr. Gerhardstein doesn't recall any such apology.

"A sincere apology from Holtz during that meeting or something heartfelt from the diocese, and I probably wouldn't have even sued, much less come forward," says Mr. Gerhardstein, who says he has not attended church since he was 20 or so. "But my father always said that evil prevails when good men do nothing."


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