Priest to Get Full Catholic Burial
Suicide Shocks Friends, Brings Second Sexual-Abuse Allegation

By David Briggs, Amanda Garrett and Steve Luttner
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio]
April 6, 2002

In life, the Rev. Donald Rooney was remembered by many as a caring priest with an infectious smile who would stick with parishioners through the tough times.

In death, a suicide committed under the cloud of a sexual-abuse allegation, those who loved him are counting on God's mercy.

The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland announced yesterday that it would give Rooney a full Catholic burial, hanging on to the church teaching that God "by ways known to him alone" can offer salvation to those who take their own lives.

"If anybody is sitting in heaven, he is," said Mary Devring, 48, a former parishioner who remembers Rooney paying her son's tuition at a time she was sick and needed help. "I feel I have another saint to intercede for me."

Meanwhile, a second alleged victim of Rooney's came forward with allegations of sexual abuse against the late 48-year-old priest.

Regina Scolaro, 31, said that Rooney groped and kissed her in a parish kitchen on the Friday night before her Confirmation in the mid-1980s, when she was a seventh-grader at St. Patrick Church, in the West Park neighborhood of Cleveland.

Scolaro, of San Francisco, said she first told her parents of Rooney's alleged abuse during a visit to Cleveland last week.

The family was discussing the national abuse scandal.

Yesterday, Scolaro said she decided to tell the public, too, because she didn't want the woman who made the initial complaint to feel guilty or unsure of herself after Rooney's suicide.

"I've tried to forget this for 20 years, and I hoped I never would have to talk about it, but I have to help this other woman," Scolaro said during a tearful phone call.

Also yesterday, James McCafferty, director of the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services, said his department would work with the diocese to determine if any children were in danger at St. Anthony of Padua in Parma, Rooney's last parish.

The first alleged victim told diocese officials in a Monday phone call that she was sexually abused as a young girl in 1980 when Rooney was associate pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Wadsworth.

The diocese asked Rooney to a meeting on Wednesday to discuss the allegation.

When the priest did not show up, church officials called the priest's family and filed a missing-person report, according to church spokesman Robert Tayek.

Around noon Thursday, Hinckley Township police found Rooney slumped over the wheel of his car in a drugstore parking lot, dead of a gunshot wound to the head. It was the only bullet in the 9 mm handgun.

Cuyahoga County Coroner Elizabeth Balraj yesterday ruled Rooney's death a suicide. The coroner said Rooney left behind a one-sentence note that told how to contact his sister.

The Catholic catechism speaks forcefully against suicide but says grave psychological disturbances or fear of suffering can diminish moral responsibility for the act.

In a release, the diocese said it assumes Rooney's reasoning process was impaired, "and we should give him the benefit of the doubt and place the matter in the hands of our ever-merciful Lord."

Tayek said Rooney would be given the full burial ritual of the Catholic Church.

A prayer service was scheduled for last night at St. Anthony of Padua Church. On Monday, Rooney's body will be taken to the church, where vespers will be sung at 3 p.m., with a wake continuing until 9. Bishop Anthony M. Pilla will celebrate a Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m. Tuesday. Burial will be in Holy Cross Cemetery.

For the alleged victim who came forward yesterday, bitter memories remain of the priest who took her aside after she bloodied her lip during a dodge-ball game at a Confirmation retreat.

Instead of helping with the cut, Scolaro said, Rooney started rubbing his hands over her breasts and back and kissing her.

"I had never even been kissed before, so I didn't know what was going on, but I knew it was wrong," she said. "As a child I was so ashamed. Why did he pick me? Did I do something wrong? No one was going to believe a girl over a priest."

Still, Scolaro said she can forgive Rooney.

"He was sick," she said. "But I can't forgive the Catholic Church. They knew of all of these sick people out there and did nothing."

Others remembered Rooney as a compassionate and popular priest who loved to teach the faith.

Ordained in 1979, Rooney served at Sacred Heart of Jesus in Wadsworth until 1984, when he was transferred to St. Patrick. From 1989 to 1991, he served at St. Margaret Mary Parish in South Euclid, at St. Columbkille Church in Parma until 1996 and at St. John Vianney Parish in Mentor until 1998.

Rooney was given permission to go to New Mexico for a year to care for his ailing father. He returned to parish work in 1999 at St. Anthony of Padua.

At St. John Vianney, the Rev. Thomas Johns said Rooney was able to draw crowds of more than 100 for his adult-education programs. "God is going to show Don mercy," he said. "That is our prayer."

Wadsworth Mayor Caesar Carrino said he was "shocked beyond belief" at Rooney's suicide. He last saw Rooney at a funeral Mass this month.

"After the funeral he was talking to several parishioners," Carrino said. "He was laughing and seemed so 'up.' " The Rev. Donald Dunson, a theologian at St. Mary Seminary in Wickliffe, said it pains him to imagine the "prison of despair" that led Rooney to take his own life. But Dunson said he could envision God embracing his colleague at the very instant the gun went off.

"At the moment they die, Christ bursts through the wall of despair," he said. "I think God must have met him at the place he was most wounded."


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