Woman Forgives Priest, Not Church

By James F. McCarty and David Briggs
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio]
March 12, 2002

Smiles come easily these days for Sandra, sitting relaxed in a Lakewood coffee shop beside a cop she calls her guardian angel, Euclid police Detective Joe Bensi.

She's 29 now, a licensed marriage and family counselor who devotes much of her time to working with foster children.

She has a husband whose support and understanding she cherishes. And, perhaps most surprisingly, given her background, she wants the world to know that she remains a devout and practicing Catholic.

It is with this message in mind that Sandra (not her real name) agreed to meet with a pair of newspaper reporters to talk about her childhood abuse at the hands of a trusted priest, knowing the pain those memories would inspire. "I want others to know that it's possible to recover from abuse and still love God," she said.

"The whole thing is faith for me," Sandra said. "It's faith that allows you to heal and to forgive and to let go."

Among the dozens of abuse victims walking the streets of Northeast Ohio - many of them angry, mentally scarred and bitter toward the church they once loved - Sandra remains an extraordinary exception.

"She should be an inspiration to everyone," said Bensi. "To be able to accomplish everything she has in spite of the odds is amazing to me."

Sandra was just 8 years old, a second-grader at St. Felicitas School who had just received her First Communion, when the priest everyone called Father Marty began appearing regularly at her Euclid home in 1981.

The Irish Catholic family of five children, so devout that they recited the rosary together every night, considered it an honor and a blessing for the popular priest to show such attention.

The Rev. Martin Louis took a special interest in the youngest child, Sandra, whose sunny disposition earned her the family nickname Smiley. He started out slowly and seemingly innocently, soliciting back rubs, frolicking with her in the pool or sitting her on his lap in front of the television set.

But he gradually crossed far into the realm of the inappropriate and beyond, to the criminal.

When no one else was looking, the priest secretly began kissing the little girl on the mouth and touching her on the breasts and between her legs in the pool.

Sometimes at night, Louis would accompany Sandra to bed under the guise of hearing her evening prayers. Behind the closed door, he would take off his collar, pull back the covers and lie on top of her while she pretended to sleep.

"Don't be scared," he would whisper to her. "You can trust me. I'm your friend. Be a good girl and do it."

Four times, he attempted intercourse. At least once, he orally raped her.

Each time afterward, he would assure her he was God's best friend and warn her not to tell her parents. If she did, she would face eternal damnation.

"When you're little, 'Burn in hell' - my God, that's pretty scary," Sandra recalled.

Sandra responded by clutching a raggedy stuffed animal as a shield against her molester and praying to God that he would go away.

"Sometimes, the greatest gift was being able to fall asleep at night and having what had happened leave my mind."

At last, her prayers were answered. Louis left and never returned. But the priest's criminal hands had left an indelible mark on the then-11-year-old girl and her family.

It is difficult now, 18 years after the rapes ended, to see the connection between this pious and amiable woman in the coffee shop and the severely traumatized girl described in police and psychological reports.

Smiley the bubbly prankster became introverted, depressed and painfully shy. Her grades dropped in school, and she was frequently absent. Her sleep was marred by nightmares and flashbacks.

Sandra's mental condition deteriorated as she entered high school. She felt dirty, and her hygiene became poor. She was withdrawn and despondent, spending hours alone in her bedroom. Her weight fluctuated, and she suffered eating disorders. She stopped attending church altogether.

At her lowest point, she bought two bottles of pain pills and went for a long walk, intending to take an overdose when she returned home.

"I wanted to die. It was awful."

Sandra credits the quick and immediate response of a high school teacher whom she confided in, and Detective Bensi's understanding, with saving her life.

Bensi's investigation turned up more than a dozen other alleged victims. The statute of limitations had expired in most of the cases, however, and no one wanted to join Sandra in a lawsuit against Louis and the diocese.

A Cuyahoga County grand jury indicted Louis on 14 counts of rape in 1992. He pleaded guilty to a single count as part of a plea bargain and was sentenced to five to 25 years in prison. Now 63, he is an inmate at the Grafton Correctional Institution. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Bensi said his investigation discovered indications the diocese knew about Louis' sexual proclivities since as early as the mid-1960s but chose to shift him around to different parishes rather than have him defrocked.

"In their attempt to keep him away from kids, they actually made it worse by giving him a much wider area in which to work," Bensi said.

Auxiliary Bishop A. James Quinn said that was never the church's intention.

"The events surrounding Marty Louis took everybody by surprise," Quinn said last week. "I can honestly say as long as I've been downtown I didn't hear all that stuff about him. After it came out in the paper, yes, then people started to talk about things."

During a group therapy session at Johns Hopkins University in 1990, Louis admitted to molesting more than 90 children during his 24-year career as a priest in the Cleveland Diocese, Bensi said. A diocesan official later modified the estimate to 12 to 16 victims, according to a police report.

Sandra said she was crushed after learning the extent of Louis' activity and the diocese's tacit complicity.

"When so many people knew about him, why did it take a child to bring it to their attention and make it stop?" she wondered.

Her parents told a psychiatrist that they were dealing with an entirely separate case of guilt, according to the doctor's report. They, after all, had invited a sexual predator into their home. Once, her mother told the doctor, Sandra had protested that she didn't want to accompany the priest to get ice cream. But her mother insisted that she go. Louis later molested her in his car.

As difficult as Sandra's recovery has been, diocesan officials have done little to help, she said. For a while, in fact, they made it worse.

In 1996, as Sandra prepared to oppose Louis' early release from the penitentiary, the Ohio Parole Board received a letter of support for Louis from an unlikely source: Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla.

"I sense Martin has learned to cope with his emotions and is ready and mature enough at this point in his life to be a principled citizen," Pilla wrote.

The bishop later withdrew the letter after learning about Sandra's opposition. But she said he never offered her comparable assistance.

Pilla declined to be interviewed. But Quinn said the bishop was simply responding to a request from Louis' family in writing the letter.

Sandra said she doesn't want anything from the diocese for herself; she only wishes church officials would commit themselves to helping all of the anonymous victims who are in far worse shape than she is in.

"What would really be helpful is for them to say, 'I'm sorry. It's our fault,' " she said.

She is at peace with her past. She has even forgiven Louis.

"Now I'm working on forgiving the church," she said. "That's much harder for me."


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