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Published: Friday, 7/5/2002

Michigan social-service agency evaluates job status of ex-priest

BY MICHAEL D. SALLAH
BLADE NATIONAL AFFAIRS WRITER
Leo Welch has admitted that he molested boys between 1956 and 1961, while he was a priest in a parish in Bellevue. Leo Welch has admitted that he molested boys between 1956 and 1961, while he was a priest in a parish in Bellevue.
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A Michigan social-service agency is investigating the background of a former Toledo priest accused of sexually abusing altar boys to determine whether the man can keep his job as a social worker.

No decision has been made in the case of Leo Welch, who has admitted to sexual activities with young boys in the 1960s in what could be the largest sex-abuse case to strike the Catholic Diocese of Toledo.

“We're assessing the situation, and that's about all I can say,” said Mike Simowski, executive director of the Senior Alliance in Metro Detroit.

The public, nonprofit agency began an inquiry last week - the day after a story appeared in The Blade in which the former priest admitted to indulging in sex acts with youths at his cottage 12 miles east of Toledo.

The former priest said his supervisor immediately called him to talk about the published story.

“Obviously, he was surprised. The agency is embarrassed by this. No one wants someone like me around,” said the former cleric, who now lives in Metro Detroit. “Mine were the sins of a young priest.”

The 75-year-old Toledo native, who has worked at the agency since 1998, said he is now taking his vacation days through July 17.

He said he is not sure the agency will allow him to return to his job helping seniors find medical care, housing, food, and other needs.

Mr. Simowski refused to comment on Mr. Welch's future with the Senior Alliance, which oversees state and federal programs for the elderly.

The action involving the aging social worker is the latest development in a scandal that has been brewing for two months.

Two victims have taken their case to the diocese, and two others are waiting to provide details of their experiences at the former priest's private getaway on Route 2 in eastern Lucas County.

Though the case is still evolving, as many as four dozen boys from Immaculate Conception parish in Bellevue were invited between 1956 and 1961 to the onetime cleric's cottage - a virtual playground with a private pond, a go-cart track, and a speed boat on nearby Lake Erie.

At the time, Mr. Welch was an associate pastor at the Bellevue church, 57 miles east of Toledo.

In a chilling tale of sex abuse, some say they were forced to perform oral sex; others say they were penetrated by the priest.

One victim, George Keller, 54, of Bellevue, says he believes up to “dozens” of others were victimized by the young cleric.

“We may never know the numbers of kids,” says Mr. Keller, who in May became the first victim to step forward. “I've talked to people who don't want to say anything. They're still embarrassed.”

The priest's rendezvous with the youths ended in 1961 after an angry mother of one boy went to the church pastor and city prosecutor.

The case was never turned over to police; instead, the young priest was quickly removed from the parish and secretly ordered by the diocese to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, according to Mr. Welch.

In 1962 he was transferred to Christ the King parish in Toledo, where he stayed until he abruptly left the priesthood in 1965.

Though diocesan officials were saying last month they were not sure if he was still alive, The Blade found the former priest living in a small, dilapidated home in Inkster, Mich., about 54 miles north of Toledo.

In his first-ever interview about his years as a priest, he admitted he “crossed the line” with children at his parish four decades ago.

“The only way I could label it - it was a sexual experimentation. I've lived with this every day of my life. I was sick. That's all I can say. I was sick.”

Though he says he no longer works directly with children, the agency where he has been employed the past four years was “concerned about its image,” he said. “This is not something that's easy to talk about. I wish it never happened, but I can't go back and undo what has been done.”

The agency director said he has not found anything to show that Mr. Welch has continued his past practices since joining the Senior Alliance four years ago. “Since Leo Welch came here in 1998, he's been a regular employee. There haven't been any difficulties,” said Mr. Simowski.

A hunched-over, graying figure, Mr. Welch spends his days going to shopping malls and public places, meeting with seniors and informing them about programs available to them in the Detroit area.

Now a certified social worker, the former priest insists he was an alcoholic during his weekends with the boys, ages 9 to 13, four decades ago.

After he left the priesthood, he says he went to work at a gas station in Lambertville and was certified in 1974 as a social worker in Michigan, where he worked for the former state Department of Social Services, records show.

There are no complaints or disciplinary actions filed with the state, according to Maura Campbell of the Department of Consumer & Industry.

During some of his years as a social worker, Mr. Welch worked in group homes with mentally challenged youths.

One of his victims from the Bellevue years, Mr. Keller, has hired Cleveland lawyer William Crosby to prepare a civil lawsuit against Mr. Welch and the diocese. But Mr. Keller says he places more responsibility on the diocese than on his former priest.

“What Leo Welch did was wrong - despicable - and I'll be the first to say that. But he has been honest enough to admit that,” said Mr. Keller, who met with Toledo Bishop James Hoffman on May 15. “But the fact that the diocese just removed him and moved him on to another parish was unconscionable.”

Mr. Keller said when he recently asked diocesan officials about the whereabouts of Mr. Welch, he was told the former priest may be dead.

Just two days ago, Mr. Keller said he called the former priest on the telephone and talked for the first time in 41 years.

“This is a man who was sick and needed help, and no one - not even the diocese - was there to help him,” said Mr. Keller, who was 11 years old when he was first molested by Father Welch. “That doesn't excuse him. Far from it. He has to live with what he did.”

Mr. Welch, who confirmed the phone call, said he was ordered by the diocese to receive psychiatric evaluation after he was accused of molesting altar boys in 1961. But he said he was never sent to a treatment center. “They never wanted to know the underlying reasons for what I did,” he said. “I didn't even know why.”



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