Bishop Pilla Walks Tightrope in Priest Sex Abuse Scandal

By James F. McCarty
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, Ohio]
May 5, 2002

For nearly two decades, Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla has allowed subordinates to manage the details of clergy sexual abuse in secret, with an apparent eye to muzzling alleged victims and protecting abusive priests from public scrutiny.

But in mid-March, amid the glare of local and national news reports, Pilla abruptly asserted himself by launching a series of symbolic acts and wrenching policy shifts that, while earning him praise in some quarters, have been roundly condemned in others.

Stung by reports in The Plain Dealer of the hardball legal tactics employed by the diocese in abuse cases, Pilla took the reins from his longtime legal adviser - Auxiliary Bishop A. James Quinn - and appointed a lay task force to evaluate the church's treatment of alleged abuse victims.

In Holy Thursday services at St. John's Cathedral on March 28, the spiritual leader of more than 800,000 Northeast Ohio Catholics knelt to publicly wash the feet of a woman who had been raped by a priest as a child and who had complained, as an adult, of shabby treatment by her church.

Pilla won wide acclaim for both gestures. And he plans to continue his public outreach at 7 p.m. today with a special sex-abuse healing service at the cathedral. But just hours after his Holy Thursday foot-washing, in what was described as a new spirit of openness, the bishop opened a legal Pandora's box. He publicly suspended a 40-year veteran of the priesthood after an allegation surfaced that he had spanked the bare bottom of a school girl 35 years earlier in Garfield Heights.

Six days later, as Pilla prepared to suspend another diocesan priest over allegations that he abused a seventh-grade girl in 1980, that priest shot and killed himself in a Medina County parking lot.

And early the following week, after The Plain Dealer asked if the new policy would be applied to three other active clergymen who had been named in past allegations of sex abuse, Pilla publicly suspended them. He also suspended six other priests and identified a dozen more retired or former clerics who had been accused.

������������The diocese's sudden shift from studied secrecy to aggressive disclosure has been applauded by victims' advocates and others, who say it was long overdue for a church that has purported to place victims first.

Such a public acknowledgment of clergy abuse helps victims to heal, they say, while restoring credibility to the church and reassuring parents that potential problems at their schools are being addressed.

But the new policy of openness is riddled with inconsistencies, suggesting confusion and indecision as the bishop struggles to respond to the church's crisis in confidence.

The results, according to critics inside and outside the priesthood, have been unfair, tragic and, by one account, "morally repugnant."

For instance, noticeably absent from Pilla's April 8 list of accused priests was the Rev. David Weber, the rector at St. John's Cathedral and a member of Pilla's inner circle. Weber was publicly suspended for past allegations three days later, only after reporters pressed the diocese on why he hadn't been named like the others.

Former priest Daniel Nealon was publicly identified following media inquiries as well, with diocesan officials saying they had overlooked past allegations against Nealon while preparing the list.

Two others named in past allegations, according to sources and court records - one former priest and one active - have never been publicly named by the diocese.

And last week, The Plain Dealer learned that another priest, the Rev. Joseph Seminatore, had been suspended by the diocese for a past allegation without any public notice. Seminatore vigorously denied the allegation through a relative. Diocesan spokesman Bob Tayek confirmed the suspension.

When asked why Seminatore's name was not released like the others, Tayek said each allegation will be treated case by case.

In addition to such apparent inconsistencies, Pilla's new disclosure strategy has also raised questions among public officials about whether the diocese has followed Ohio law, which requires that child sex-abuse allegations be turned over to civil authorities.

Jim McCafferty, director of the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services, said that the Cleveland diocese has given his department just eight reports of child sex abuse by its priests over the last 14 years. But five of those reports have arrived since mid-March.

Based on those reports and the number of accused priests identified by the diocese, it doesn't appear that all of the clergy-abuse allegations have been turned over as required, McCafferty said.

Pilla declined several requests to be interviewed for this story.

Despite the rash of recent disclosures, church officials have insisted that the diocese's policy hasn't changed since the early 1990s. The newly suspended priests were investigated when the years-old allegations were raised, officials said.

They were evaluated, treated and returned to ministry when it was deemed appropriate. And no new allegations have surfaced against them since. The suspensions, officials said, were an effort to be responsive to the "tenor of the times."

Priests unfairly branded? ������������But those most affected have a different view.

The Rev. Raymond Bartnikowski, the first recently suspended priest, doesn't specifically remember spanking the bare bottom of any school girls, said his attorney, James Hinton, although two other women came forward with similar assertions after he was publicly named.

Hinton argues that such disciplinary actions were common in schools in the 1960s.

To link Bartnikowski's name with "several other priests who are admitted or convicted sexual deviants," Hinton said, is tantamount to finding him guilty without due process of law.

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Daniel Gaul, a critic of the church's handling of the sex-abuse crisis, agreed.

"They might as well be putting the gun in their hands," Gaul said of the suspended clerics.

"Their lives have been permanently altered, whether they are guilty or innocent. It's a tragedy and a shame."

Cleveland lawyer Henry Hilow said publicly identifying the priests has left them unfairly branded. Hilow represents one of several priests who are suing to keep the diocese from handing over sensitive medical records to the county prosecutor, who issued a grand-jury subpoena last month for all the church's sex-abuse files.

"When all the names are grouped together, everybody is painted with the same brush and presumed guilty of something when in fact many of the people will be vindicated," Hilow said. "But the damage will have been done."

Given the "zero tolerance" pronouncements made by American cardinals returning from a recent sex-abuse conference with the pope, diocesan critics say it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the suspended priests to ever return to their ministries.

In light of that reality, the wholesale naming of once-accused priests was "morally repugnant," in the words of a diocesan priest and seminary professor who asked not to be named. Even if the release of names served a moral purpose, he said, it doesn't outweigh the damage done to those who have been allegation-free for more than a decade.

Not everyone agrees with that appraisal. For instance, alleged victims and their advocates have applauded the move, even though many criticize the diocese for not going far enough to redress their grievances.

Suzanne Carrington, who says that she was abused as a child three decades ago by a priest in Parma, is no fan of Pilla's. But she said that abusive clergymen "should be kicked out of the church and arrested and treated as anyone else in a sexual abuse case."

Some church officials support the disclosures as well, saying they help to address victims' greatest wish - that others will be spared the suffering inflicted on them by abusive priests.

Pilla's symbolic washing of the abuse victim's feet was also a welcome step forward, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine and author of books on the church hierarchy.

The bishop's gesture was a way to show "that we, as a church, have to admit our sins and reach out to victims with compassion," he said.

But if such a step seems so wise in retrospect, why did it take this beloved spiritual figure - this native son of Cleveland's East Side - so long to take it? And how did Pilla - along with dozens of other American bishops like him - find himself in such a wrenching moral dilemma in the first place? Some observers point to a long-standing church pattern of picking leaders from the bureaucracy instead of the parishes.

Not having been pastors themselves, most bishops never master the complex issues confronting priests and parishioners in the pews, said Leslie Lothstein, clinical psychology director at the Institute of Living, a treatment center in Hartford, Conn.

Instead, he says, many end up "totally tied to the apron strings of their lawyers."

In Pilla's case, those strings for years have led to Quinn, his auxiliary bishop.

Like Pilla, Quinn has minimal parish experience. Of a combined 85 years in the priesthood, the two bishops have served a total of three in parish ministry.

Unlike Pilla, Quinn is a lawyer - educated in both civil and canon law - and the bishop clearly deferred to him in legal matters.

Quinn's role changes �������������Before Pilla stepped to the forefront of the issue two months ago, it was Quinn, as chairman of the diocese's sex-abuse response team, who took the lead in handling clergy abuse allegations and in formulating the church's defense tactics.

Over the years, he has routinely scooped up abuse claims almost as soon as they came in, according to a well-placed diocesan official. And, until recently, it was Quinn who fielded most public inquiries on the issue.

When Carrington and another alleged victim James G. (not his real name) complained to Pilla about the diocesan response, it was Quinn - not Pilla - who responded with what both have described as perfunctory, form-letter dismissals.

When The Plain Dealer asked Pilla for an interview for its March series on sex-abuse cases, it was Quinn who sat down with reporters, along with private attorney Edward Maher, to answer questions.

But since those stories appeared, Quinn has become something of a sex-abuse lightning rod for the Cleveland diocese, providing fodder for controversy in both national and local news reports.

Quinn has been named in several lawsuits filed across the country, accused of aiding the church in a "racketeering" enterprise by encouraging officials to hide potentially incriminating documents from alleged abuse victims and their attorneys.

A speech on pedophilia that Quinn delivered in 1990 to the Midwest Canon Law Society conference in Columbus has since come back to haunt him.

According to a transcript, Quinn told a roomful of church lawyers that if there is something in a priest's file that "you really don't want people to see, you might send it off to the Apostolic Delegate because they have immunity [from legal discovery]. Something you consider dangerous, you might send it there."

Quinn has acknowledged under oath that he made the statement, although he has said it has been quoted out of context.

And while he has also testified that the Cleveland diocese has maintained "secret files" on errant priests, he denied ever sending such files to the Apostolic Delegate, the Vatican's diplomatic representative in Washington.

Quinn declined to be interviewed for this story.

More recently, Quinn found himself at the center of a dispute involving Suzanne Carrington's request for help in paying for psychological counseling for abuse she said that she suffered in the late 1960s at the hands of a Parma priest.

Quinn declined to provide diocesan aid, saying the church could find no corroboration of any alleged abuse by the late Monsignor Edward Kickel.

When informed in March that former teachers at St. Francis de Sales school in Parma had called a parents meeting in 1969 to discuss abuse allegations against Kickel, that some 200 people attended and that parents said they personally told then-chancellor Quinn of the controversy at the time, Quinn said through a spokesman that he had "no recollection of anyone coming forward on anything relating to Monsignor Kickel."

That surprised St. Francis parent Janet Wilson, who said she called Quinn for two solid weeks after the 1969 meeting to report the Kickel accusations.

Only when she threatened to complain to the media, Wilson said, did Quinn meet with her and two other parish women.

But Wilson was even more surprised to learn that Quinn has testified under oath that he had not dealt with any priest-abuse allegations while he was diocesan chancellor, from 1962 to 1972.

"How could he possibly forget something like that?" Wilson said. "Believe me, that was something you just don't forget."

It was shortly after the Carrington flap that Pilla seemed to grab the reins on the abuse crisis. And Quinn has struck a much lower public profile ever since.

His role as sexual-abuse point man and voice of the diocese on legal matters has been taken by Stephen Sozio, a lawyer from the high-powered Jones Day Reavis & Pogue law firm and a former member of the U.S. attorney's Strike Force.

And Pilla, detached for years from the details of the issue, now appears to acknowledge that he seriously misjudged the clergy-abuse problem in his own diocese, and that some victims were not treated well enough.

"Obviously in the minds of many victims we have not reached out to them adequately," he said last month in a statement issued to the New York Times, "and if we are going to restore trust, we have to do a better job."

But as the American bishops prepare for a June meeting in Dallas to discuss the scandal, including a national policy on what to do with errant priests, the local fallout over Pilla's decision to publicly name those accused years ago continues to fester.

Daniel Nealon, a former priest whose name made Pilla's list, considers himself a casualty of what he described as a badly mishandled situation.

He said Pilla and another diocesan official told him they were forced into the disclosure by The Plain Dealer, which the church officials believed was preparing to publish the names.

The newspaper had no intention of printing the names of accused priests without confirmation by the diocese or civil authorities.

"I was thrown out to dry by the diocese," Nealon said.

A well-placed diocesan source with knowledge of the decision-making process confirms that theory. "Bishop Pilla was terrified that The Plain Dealer would get to the courthouse steps first" with a list of the suspected priests, the source said.

A Shaker Heights lawyer and divorced father of two girls, Nealon was accused more than 10 years ago of sexually abusing a young deaf boy. He vehemently denies the charges.

"I had my issues as a priest," said Nealon, who admits to four affairs with grown women while in the priesthood, "but pedophilia wasn't one of them."

He said he suspects he was exposed to silence his criticisms of the church.

"They put my name out there as a pre-emptive strike, to keep me from talking about their cover-up of priest sexual abuse cases," Nealon said.

"If they're going to say there are only 24 or 25 alleged priest abusers, then they're lying. Twice that number would be more accurate," he said.

Pilla's recent outreach to victims has been more favorably received. But even that hasn't been enough to overcome what many say have been years of denial and shabby treatment on Pilla's watch.

"Too little, too late, I'm sorry to say," said the mother of two grown men who allegedly were abused as children about 20 years apart by the same priest.

In a letter to the woman written in 1984, Pilla apologized for the abuse she said her children had suffered and promised that the priest, the Rev. Allen Bruening, was getting help, she said.

But despite what she said were the bishop's assurances that Bruening would never again be given an assignment near children, he was later sent to a parish in Lorain, and then on to the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas.

The woman said in a recent interview that she remains faithful, but she admitted that it pains her just to hear Pilla's name.

"God had nothing to do with this," she said. "It's the hierarchy I have no use for."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.