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Church in Crisis

Forgiveness marks Holy Thursday service


In an act designed to help victims of sexual abuse heal from the traumas they have suffered, a woman who as a child was repeatedly abused by a priest participated in Holy Thursday services led by Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla at St. John Cathedral.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer says the woman allowed Pilla to wash her feet, following Jesus’ example in John’s Gospel when he washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. The Plain Dealer’s policy is not to identify by name victims of sex crimes.

The woman embraced Pilla after he dried her feet, and the Plain Dealer reported March 29: “Pilla, his face quivering with emotion, whispered ‘Thank you’ in her ear.”

Pilla, who was installed as Cleveland’s bishop in January 1981, has come under criticism following a series of stories by the Plain Dealer in March that detail the dioceses’ history of reassigning to other parishes priests accused of sexual abuse of minors and of defending itself in sexual abuse civil suits through the use of legal tactics in which victims are forced to recount minute details of the abuse in extended depositions led by diocesan lawyers.

“For the victims of abuse and their parents and families,” the bishop said in his homily on Holy Thursday, “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.”

According to the Plain Dealer, the woman later told the congregation that she had “felt abandoned by the church and those around me.” She said she was recovering through God’s grace and asked the congregation to “teach each other about faith and about love as we carry our crosses.”

Pilla said of the woman’s participation: “I just think it takes tremendous courage, tremendous faith and an unbelievable sense of forgiveness to do what she did.”

The woman, now 29, first suffered sexual abuse by Cleveland priest Martin Louis when she was 8 years old. The priest was allowed by her devout parents to meet with the girl in her room, where he threatened her with eternal damnation if she informed on him. The abuse continued until she was 11 years old. Afterward, she suffered severe depression, eating disorders and thoughts of suicide. As a teenager, she contacted police about Louis. He was arrested and later pled guilty to one count of rape, for which he received a sentence of five to 25 years.

In an interview with the Plain Dealer, the woman said the church did little to help her cope with the abuse. She said she was shocked in 1996 when she learned that Pilla wrote a letter in support of an effort to obtain early release for Louis. Pilla later withdrew the letter after hearing that the woman opposed early release for Louis.

Recently, Pilla made a call to the woman to offer his apology, and after she volunteered to help other victims of clergy sexual abuse, the bishop suggested she take part in the Holy Thursday service.

The woman’s acceptance of the bishop’s apology and participation in the service is all the more extraordinary considering that Detective Joe Bensi, who investigated the case against Martin, has told the Plain Dealer that he found evidence that indicated the diocese had received allegations against Martin as early as the mid-’60s. Instead of having the priest defrocked, the diocese had transferred him from parish to parish.

According to the Plain Dealer, Louis has admitted to having molested over 90 children while a priest in Cleveland. The diocese has estimated that he abused 12 to 16 victims.

The Plain Dealer also reported that when fighting civil suits against allegations of clergy sex abuse of minors, the diocese has repeatedly used the legal tactic of prolonging the questioning of victims about the abuse in depositions.

The newspaper reported on such depositions March 10. Beverly Schonher, who brought a civil suit against a parish priest who abused her repeatedly during a two-year period beginning when she 16 years old, was deposed for four days. Her case is still pending in court.

The Plain Dealer reported: Schonher was pressed “for prurient -- and seemingly irrelevant -- information, asking her, for instance, which hand the priest had allegedly used to assault her, how many fingers he had used and whether she had enjoyed the sex.”

Said Karen Crist, one of Schonher’s lawyers: “In over a decade of doing this work, I never, ever ran into an opponent who stooped to this tactic.

“A few times, I thought I was going to vomit. Bev would start to shake and have to stop. We probably took 20 breaks.”

Edward Maher, the diocese’s lead lawyer, has defended his questioning tactics, saying, “My job as a lawyer is to do the best job I can, to learn all the facts, to know the law and apply it to the case. I try to do that with sensitivity, care and concern.”

Because cases of clergy sex abuse in the diocese have been settled with confidentiality agreements, it is unclear how successful Maher’s tactics have been, but the Plain Dealer reports that in one case an unnamed 19-year-old victim dropped his suit after suffering through two days of such prolonged questioning.

In response to the reports, the Cleveland diocese is forming a commission to review its policy governing child sexual abuse.

“It is clear to everyone that our policies and implementation has been both challenged and supported, challenged by some and supported by some,” Pilla told the Catholic Universe Bulletin, Cleveland’s diocesan newspaper. “I felt it would be important that a panel would look at our policy and to see that we conduct ourselves in an appropriate manner.

“It’s also a reaction to the people who have been affirming the policies and who have felt we’ve made a good faith effort [to resolve allegations],” he said.

The commission will be composed of 15 members and led by William Denihan, former director of the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services.

Gill Donovan is a writer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002