As Priests Quietly Work to Clear Names, One Fights Back

By James F. McCarty
Plain Dealer Reporter
February 9, 2003

While lawyers decide what to do with thousands of investigative files compiled on their cases, 15 suspended priests from the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland are waging a quiet fight for reinstatement. But one priest, the Rev. Raymond Bartnikowski, is fed up with patience and restraint. His lawyer has sent letters to Bishop Anthony Pilla and Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William Mason, demanding speed and openness from a process that so far has been methodical and veiled in secrecy.

It is our hope that a prompt and just resolution of Father Bartnikowski's case will be forthcoming, and will not take another eight months' time," lawyer James Hinton of Akron wrote to Pilla in December.

Bartnikowski, longtime pastor of St. Victor Church in Richfield, is accused of spanking the bare bottoms of young girls while serving at St. Monica Church in Garfield Heights during the 1960s. He has steadfastly denied wrongdoing.

Hinton is pressing Mason to let him review the investigative file on Bartnikowski. He also has obtained a consultant's opinion suggesting that using corporal punishment was not considered improper or unusual at the time the priest resorted to it.

"Father Bartnikowski has been publicly identified by your office as a member of a class of priests who have been accused of sexual abuse of children," Hinton wrote. "That characterization is purely and simply a false misrepresentation of fact."

Lawyers for other suspended priests have been less vocal, at least in public, but no less persistent in arguing for their clients' return to the ministry.

But absolution, if it comes, is at least a month away.

Diocesan spokesman Robert Tayek said a review board will begin examining the priests' cases in March. Its recommendations will be forwarded to Pilla, who will make the final decision on reinstatement.

Pilla has never explained why he suspended the 15 priests and identified 13 other suspected abusers who had retired or left the priesthood.

Several lawyers questioned why the bishop acted based solely on accusations and not on proof of their guilt.

"I'm not sure if there is any other occupation where people would be fronted out like this on the basis of mere allegations, and causing them to basically lose their jobs," said attorney Lawrence Vuillemin of Akron, who represents two suspended priests - the Rev. Joseph Lieberth of Holy Family Church in Stow and the Rev. John Mueller of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Wooster.

Other lawyers were more critical.

"It was a public-relations move," said Jay Milano, who represents a man suing the diocese over allegations of sexual abuse. "They threw all those guys away so they could say, See, we're trying.' "

Vuillemin and other lawyers said it does their clients no good to accuse either the bishop or the prosecutor of delaying the legal and canonical processes.

"I understand where Bishop Pilla is coming from," said William "Bud" Doyle, who represents several suspended priests he declined to identify. "This is still a work in process, and it takes time."

Lawyer John Pyle has a different concern. He represents William McCool, one of the 13 former priests Pilla said have been accused of sexual abuse.

McCool lost his job as a golf course manager after Pilla identified him, and since then has been haunted by accusations he thought he had left behind years ago. Some of the blame must fall on Pilla, Pyle said.

"I know the bishop is trying to do the right thing and trying to demonstrate to the public that he's doing the right thing," Pyle said. "But in a war, innocent bystanders are injured, and Mr. McCool definitely was an innocent bystander."

For all their distress, at least some of the suspended priests profess unshaken faith in their church and their bishop.

"In spite of all of this," Hinton wrote Pilla, "Father Bartnikowski has amazingly remained staunchly loyal and devoted to you."


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