National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 29, 2003

Vatican to Toledo: Reinstate priest removed for alleged sex abuse


Six months after he was removed from St. Mary Parish in Sandusky, Ohio, for allegedly sexually abusing a 9-year-old girl 31 years ago, Fr. Philip Feltman is back as pastor, reinstated by recommendation from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Feltman, 63, is the first priest in active parish ministry in the United States accused of sexual abuse that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has returned to ministry without a trial. U.S. dioceses have forwarded about 200 sexual abuse cases to the congregation under the guidelines for handling such cases approved by the U.S. bishops’ conference last year.

A statement from the Toledo diocese said: “Upon review, the officials [of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] decided there was no way to substantiate the case and recommended that Fr. Feltman be returned to the ministry.” Feltman returned to the parish July 18.

Victims advocacy groups are dismayed because a Roman committee overruled the judgment of a local body. Diocesan officials expressed satisfaction with the process.

“What is disheartening and sad and confusing and dangerous is the fact that there is no resolution to this matter,” said Claudia Vercellotti, coordinator of Toledo’s chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, SNAP.

“Reinstating him does not negate the victim’s credibility and it does not exonerate Fr. Feltman,” Vercellotti told NCR. “All we know is that … a review board handpicked by the diocese felt compelled to remove him because of the risk he posed to kids. And then bureaucrats from Rome … reinstated him.”

Toledo’s vicar general and chancellor, Fr. Michael Billian, told NCR that the investigation “process is developed in such a way so that varying levels of proof are applied at different stages.”

At the first stage, “the lightest level of proof,” according to Billian, the diocesan review board examined the charges, interviewed the person whom the accuser asked to represent her (in this case her current pastor) and the accused, Feltman. “They asked does it [the charge] seem to be true. They said, yes it seems to be true,” Billian said.

Acting on the board’s recommendation and following the U.S. bishops’ guidelines for handling sex abuse, Bishop Robert Donnelly removed the priest from active ministry and referred the case to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (The diocese also had to ask the congregation to lift a 10-year statute of limitations.)

The congregation reviewed the case, and they found “there were not enough facts there to take it to the next level of credibility. So that was when they decided the case couldn’t move forward,” Billian said.

The case is based on late 2002 accusations by a woman who said Feltman abused her in 1972 when she was 9 years old. Feltman, ordained in 1966, was then assistant pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, Toledo. The late Bishop James Hoffman referred the case to Toledo’s diocesan review board, created under the U.S. bishops’ guidelines.

People in the diocese had expected that the case would go before a regional tribunal of priests from outside the Toledo diocese, Vercellotti said.

Billian said, “When we started this process I thought that too, until we learned later in the process that Rome could give one of five answers to every case.”

The congregation’s choosing to return Feltman to ministry without a trial, he said, “was a surprise to me, but I guess it’s all part of the process.”

When reviewing a case referred to it by diocesan authorities, the congregation can: 1) decide the case has no merit and reinstate the accused; 2) send the case to trial; 3) in “clear and grave” situations laicize the accused without further inquiry or a trial; 4) retire the accused from active ministry but allow him to remain a priest; or 5) encourage the accused to request voluntary laicization.

Billian also noted that this was Toledo’s first experience working under the new guidelines. “[We were] being moved through a process that we didn’t understand. It seemed that at every step of the way the rules were continually being developed,” he said.

Rules for moving through the process and how the process was supposed to work were not always well communicated, Billian said. “But the end result I think was thorough.” For that reason, he said he was satisfied with the process. “Both sides were able to present [evidence] and be heard and the procedures were followed correctly,” he said.

However, Vercellotti said she regrets that local people, the ones closest to the issue and with the best access to the relevant information, will not be allowed to further examine this case. “A couple bureaucrats in Rome who … are the farthest removed made the decision,” she said. “That is what’s scary and dangerous.”

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 2003

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