Louisville priest's molestation trial begins
By Chris Kenning
November 28, 2016
|Rev. Joseph Hemmerle.|
BRANDENBURG, Ky. — Michael Norris was a 10-year-old Catholic school student from Louisville in 1973 when he spent a week playing games and sleeping in cabins at Camp Tall Trees, a popular summer camp at Otter Creek Park run by the Archdiocese of Louisville.
It was there, Norris told a Meade County jury on Monday, that the Rev. Joseph Hemmerle, who ran the camp for 35 years, asked him one night to his cabin to treat a bad case of poison ivy.
Norris was told to strip and stand on a stool, while Hemmerle applied topical medicine and then used his hands and mouth to touch him sexually, he said, asking him if it felt good. Afterward, he was in shock: “God, what just happened? What is this?” he recalled thinking.
Norris, 53, didn’t tell anyone for years, he said, choking back tears on the witness stand — afraid he wouldn’t be believed. When he finally did as an adult in 2001, it didn’t result in charges until a second accuser came forward more than a decade later.
“I’ve suffered for 43 years,” Norris said, glancing at Hemmerle sitting a few feet away on the opening day of the trial in which the former Trinity High School teacher faces sex-abuse related charges of immoral or indecent practices.
Hemmerle's attorney, David Lambertus, said in his opening statement that the charges lacked physical evidence and denied there had been “any sexual impropriety whatsoever.”
Meade County prosecutors rested their case at the end of the first day, calling a handful of witnesses including a fellow camper who recalled Norris being absent from the boys' cabin, a detective who investigated the case and Dennis Wagner, a psychologist who spoke to Hemmerle in 2001 at the request of former Archbishop Thomas Kelly.
That came after Norris wrote a letter to Hemmerle and Louisville archdiocese officials. His letter was sent just months before a slew of plaintiffs sued the archdiocese, alleging sexual abuse by dozens of priests. The archdiocese settled a class action lawsuit with 243 plaintiffs in 2003 for more than $25 million. Norris never joined the suit, saying the case wasn’t about money.
Wagner said Hemmerle acknowledged that he applied medicine to boys' genitals when they had poison ivy but didn’t think of it as sexual. Wagner said he concluded based on available information that Hemmerle didn’t seem to have a tendency to abuse.
Norris also reported the incident to police but no criminal charges were filed and Hemmerle was reinstated in 2002. He was placed on administrative leave again in 2014 as pastor of two Marion County parishes after a second person made allegations and Hemmerle was indicted on sex abuse and sodomy charges, which prosecutors said was later amended to reflect the statutes at the time. Hemmerle declined to comment outside the courtroom.
Norris, a Navy veteran and engineer who lives in Texas, said he’d been raised in the church and attended Trinity High, where he had Hemmerle as a teacher for Latin. He later moved to a public high school, he said.
Norris said the incident haunted him. “I felt dirty,” he said. He has had to get counseling. The archdiocese closed Camp Tall Trees in 2002.
In 2008, Norris said he went to Hemmerle’s office to confront him, and he said that Hemmerle denied that anything had occurred. “I wanted to let him know … the impact it had on me,” he said.
The defense will take up its case on Tuesday. The second accuser, whose name hasn’t been made public, is part of a separate trial scheduled for next year.
Hemmerle, a native of the California neighborhood who attended the old St. Benedict Catholic Elementary School, taught religion at Trinity after his ordination in 1967, the Courier-Journal reported in 2002. He also coached wrestling and track teams, and directed the now-closed boys' camp from 1971 until about 2001.
Since 2003, after being allowed to return to the ministry following the first accusation, Hemmerle has served as pastor of Holy Cross and St. Francis of Assisi, both near Loretto, Ky., archdiocese officials said.