Repentance and Forgiveness;
Victim of Rape by Priest Takes Part in Holy Thursday Ceremony

By David Briggs
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio]
March 29, 2002

Leading a diocese in agony over sexual abuse, Cleveland Catholic Bishop Anthony Pilla turned to an ancient rite of repentance on Holy Thursday to seek forgiveness from a priest's rape victim.

Re-enacting Christ's act of humility before the apostles, Pilla washed the feet of a young woman who was molested as a child by the Rev. Martin Louis.

Sandra, not her real name, bowed her head last night as the kneeling bishop grasped her hand in gratitude and then washed her feet and dried them with a towel, as the Gospel of John says Jesus did at the Last Supper. When Sandra instinctively embraced the bishop, Pilla, his face quivering with emotion, whispered "Thank you" in her ear.

The woman later addressed the congregation at St. John Cathedral in downtown Cleveland, sharing how she "felt abandoned by the church and those around me" during her tribulations.

But she said her road to recovery was paved by the grace of God, and encouraged Holy Thursday worshippers to "teach each other about faith and about love as we carry our crosses."

In an interview afterward, a still shaken Pilla called Sandra's participation a magnificent gesture of which the church may not yet be worthy.

"I just think it takes tremendous courage, tremendous faith and an unbelievable sense of forgiveness to do what she did," Pilla said.

Sandra, 29, whose story was featured on the third day of The Plain Dealer's recent three-part series on the Cleveland Diocese's handling of sexual abuse allegations, was molested for three years by Louis. The priest was so trusted by her parents that they allowed him to say nighttime prayers in her bedroom.

Sandra went from a bubbly, happy little girl her family nicknamed "Smiley" to a withdrawn, despondent child. She suffered eating disorders and even considered suicide. She reported the abuse to police as a teenager, and Louis was indicted on 14 counts of rape in 1992. He pleaded guilty to one count as part of a plea bargain, and was sentenced to five to 25 years in prison.

Now 63, he is an inmate at Grafton Correctional Institution. He has refused to comment.

Sandra has said the church did little to help her through her ordeal and in 1996, as she prepared to oppose Louis' early release from prison, she was shocked when Pilla wrote a letter supporting Louis. Pilla later withdrew the letter after learning of her opposition.

In recent weeks, the bishop personally called Sandra to apologize, and he said she offered to help the church in any way she can to bring reconciliation to victims. Pilla, who this week appointed a diocesan task force to study the church's handling of abuse allegations, invited Sandra to participate in the Holy Thursday service.

In his homily, the bishop said he would be remiss if he did not speak of the pain caused by sexual abuse in the church.

"For the victims of abuse and their parents and families, for all of you good people, for all of you good priests . . . for all of us, there is a great deal of crucifixion in this painful reality," he said.

The bishop said the church needs greater vigilance to protect children, a more pastoral response to victims and greater openness in dealing with the issue.


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