Diocese Wants Abuse Suit Dismissed

By Karen Henderson
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio]
July 26, 1995

The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland has asked a court to dismiss a $120 million lawsuit filed by eight women who say they were molested by an Avon Lake priest when they were children.

In a motion for summary judgment filed in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, the church does not dispute the allegations against the late Rev. Carl Wernet, former pastor of St. Joseph Church in Avon Lake. But Edward J. Mayer, a lawyer for the diocese, argues that the one-year statute of limitations on sexual battery and the two-year statute of limitations for bodily injury claims have expired.

The alleged incidents involving the women occurred between 1955 and 1967 and were brought to the attention of the Avon Lake community in 1992 by Lynn Lotko-Toth, one of the women who sued. Lotko-Toth alerted the media and the community through news conferences and posters.

Since the suit was filed in July 1992, 22 more women have come forward with similar allegations against Wernet, but they are not part of the suit, said William Crosby, a lawyer representing the women.

"They [the church] lost their moral and legal ability to argue statute of limitations when their priest told them to remain silent," Crosby said. He will argue that the women were emotionally disabled by what happened to them.

"How could they say anything? This man was God," Crosby said. One of his arguments is that the women suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

In some cases, the women had told their parents and the parents had complained to the diocese about Wernet. One of the women wrote of her efforts to get church officials to act in a 1993 letter to Crosby.

"The reason I am writing this letter is because I understand there is no record of my previous letter, which leads me to believe it was destroyed," the Avon Lake mother wrote.

Crosby said he learned through pretrial disclosure of evidence that the files no longer exist because they were destroyed when Wernet died in 1980.

Three women have allowed their names to be used in the suit while five others, who said they have children in Catholic schools and would be embarrassed if their names were known, have filed as Jane Does.

In court documents filed recently, the women outline histories of emotional problems that have in some cases led to failed marriages, alcoholism, drug abuse, inability to keep jobs, attempted suicide and hospitalization.

Mary Lewis, a Texas lawyer who alleges she was molested by Wernet when she was in the fifth and sixth grade and lived next door to the rectory, has gone from executive director of the Women's Advocacy Project in Austin and other prestigious jobs, including one with the Texas attorney general's office, to being unable to hold a position. Crosby said she has been living on the street. Court documents show she has been repeatedly hospitalized and diagnosed with a possible multiple-personality disorder.

Asked in a deposition about the injuries she suffered at Wernet's hands, she said, "I have been unable to sustain employment, motherhood, marriage or stability in independent life management. I have lost all employment potential, am destitute and am battling more severe anxiety and depression than ever, as a result."

The diocese had asked that the documents be sealed to protect the women, but Crosby said the women wanted the public to know what had happened to them.


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