Diocese Needs More Compassion, Sex-Abuse Victim Says

By Kevin Leininger
Fort Wayne News Sentinel
December 20, 2003

In October 1993, just one month after Bishop John D'Arcy removed Richard Steiglitz as priest at Queen of Angels Catholic Church, The News-Sentinel printed a series of letters under the headline, "If readers could talk to the pope . . ."

"I would ask the pope to reprimand the bishop for removing Father Steiglitz because the priest had adopted four Haitian refugees," one reader replied.

A year later, Steiglitz was in court - the target of a civil lawsuit filed by a man who claimed Steiglitz had fondled him in the sauna at a local apartment complex. Allen Superior Judge Nancy Boyer dismissed the suit in 1995 because the statute of limitations had expired, but D'Arcy indicated last week Steiglitz was among the 17 priests against whom credible allegations of sexual abuse have been made since 1950.

In hindsight, perhaps Steiglitz's defenders seem hopelessly naive - or worse. What would a priest want with four young men? Then again, some people are still willing to defend Michael Jackson despite his self-admitted practice of sleeping with young boys. There will always be people who are determined to ignore uncomfortable truths.

To his credit, D'Arcy is not one of them. His recent admission priests of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese have apparently abused 33 people - almost all minors - was an act of courage and compassion.

But as one of those victims reminded me this week, confessing their sins is not enough for Catholics. They also are supposed to do what they can to repair the damage those sins cause.

Michele Bennett doesn't believe D'Arcy has done enough.

More than a year ago, I wrote about how Bennett claimed to have been molested nearly 50 years ago in the rectory of New Haven's St. John the Baptist Catholic Church by Father William Ehrman. Less than one month after the story appeared, D'Arcy told parishioners there that claims of sexual abuse by Ehrman appeared to be credible. At the time, Bennett said she was satisfied. That's no longer true.

"I've been asking myself, 'What do you want, Michele?' " said Bennett from her home in Battle Creek, Mich. "Victims want peace; you want everything to be OK. But it's not so easy to walk away. I want the church to understand what people are suffering with, even now."

Bennett believes that kind of compassion has been missing from the local diocese's response to allegations of sexual abuse by its priests. Even though she resumed therapy in May to deal with lingering abuse-related issues, Bennett said no one from D'Arcy's office would know - because no one has contacted her since his public admission more than a year ago.

Bennett, 61, wants the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend to pay for her therapy. Her son, Florida resident Randal Locke, also is in therapy to cope with issues related to his mother's abuse - at a cost to date of more than $14,400. He plans on sending the diocese a bill, but is "saddened at (its) lack of compassion and support shown the victims of abuse."

Clearly, Bennett and her son are right to be angered by a priest's apparent abuse of his sacred office and a then-young girl. Whether they should also be angered by D'Arcy's attempt to deal with a problem that largely predated his arrival in 1985 is more difficult to assess. But if D'Arcy will take a little advice from a Lutheran . . .

Bennett desperately wants something more from the Catholic Church and will not fully heal until she gets it. The very least the church could do is to stay in regular contact with abuse victims - if they want it - to monitor their progress and to offer help that might be needed. D'Arcy was unavailable to respond to Bennett's criticism, but noted last week the church offers to provide counseling for anyone who claims to have been abused and has paid $633,963 to victims for counseling and other assistance since 1985.

Despite their stated desire for financial restitution, I remain convinced Bennett and her family aren't motivated by money. Bennett wants to reconnect with the Catholic Church - an institution she still loves, but no longer trusts.

Restoring trust will not be easy. Like faith itself, trust can be shaken - and is difficult to rebuild once lost. But, because Bennett's faith in God has not been broken, restoring her confidence in his church remains possible.

Finding problems in the church should shock no one. Those without sin, after all, do not need God. What separates the church from other institutions is not the absence of human weakness, but the manner in which those weaknesses are addressed.

Despite D'Arcy's unprecedented frankness, Bennett wants - needs - more: Compassion and understanding she believes have been lacking, for one thing. Such gifts would cost the church nothing but would, to her, be priceless.

'Tis the season.


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