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Published: Monday, 7/15/2002

Release files on sex abuse, bishop told

BY MICHAEL D. SALLAH
AND DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
Blaine: She said she was sexually abused by a priest at age 13. Blaine: She said she was sexually abused by a priest at age 13.
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Charging that the Toledo Catholic Diocese has shown a history of covering up sex-abuse cases, leaders of a national advocacy group for people abused by clergy demanded yesterday that Bishop James Hoffman open up decades' worth of secret church files.

The group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is asking the bishop to voluntarily turn over the files of all clergy members ever accused of sexual misconduct.

If the bishop refuses, the group will ask Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates to subpoena the documents for what could lead to a sweeping criminal investigation of Toledo priests.

“There's been a history of concealment, a history of disingenuity, and a history of dishonesty,” SNAP attorney Jeff Anderson said at a news conference yesterday at the Clarion Hotel in West Toledo.

Since the crisis in America's Roman Catholic churches began in January, numerous dioceses across the nation - including Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York - have surrendered their files to law enforcementofficials.

More than 250 priests have been removed from ministry since the crisis erupted in Boston early this year, and investigations are now under way by prosecutors nationwide, including in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus.

But this is the first time the Toledo diocese has been singled out by a national organization to hand over sensitive documents that would normally stay within the sanctity of the church.

Bishop Hoffman removed four priests on July 7, but critics charge that there are more cases of sexual misconduct that have not been brought to light, especially in out-of-court settlements.

“That is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Barbara Blaine, 46, a Toledo native who founded SNAP in the 1980s after she was sexually abused by a Toledo priest beginning at the age of 13.

“There are others whose cases have never been heard, and crimes that have never been reported.”

Bishop Hoffman, 70, who has led the local diocese for 22 years, was unavailable for comment last night, but at a news conference last week he said there were no active investigations by the diocese.

The bishop said then there have been 42 allegations - 24 involving priests - since 1995, when the diocese adopted its Policy on Response to Sexual Abuse and Adult Sexual Misconduct. Aside from the four priests who were removed last week, none of the other cases merited action, he said.

Bishop Hoffman said the diocese is not investigating accusations against priests who have died or left the ministry.

SNAP lawyers made the demands on the diocese yesterday while also announcing plans to file a civil lawsuit today in Lucas County Common Pleas Court against the Toledo diocese and former priest Leo Welch.

The suit alleges then-Father Welch repeatedly sexually molested and sodomized George Keller and Harry Lee when they were altar boys in the early 1960s at Immaculate Conception Church in Bellevue, Ohio.

Both victims, now in their 50s, say that “dozens” of others were also sexually abused by the priest at his cottage - a virtual amusement park with go-carts, a private pond, and boats in eastern Lucas County.

The proposed civil suit accuses the diocese of being negligent in supervising Father Welch and of concealing his abuses.

Instead of reporting the crimes to police, the diocese “turned a blind eye, and moved the pedophile priest from parish to parish to parish,” said William Crosby, a Cleveland lawyer who is handling the case.

Mr. Welch left the priesthood in 1965. Now 75, he admitted in interviews with The Blade last month that he sexually abused altar boys, and that the diocese never reported his actions to police.

Mr. Crosby said he will ask diocesan officials how much the local diocese has spent in legal fees for out-of-court settlements that keep the scope of the problem out of public view.

The three SNAP leaders said that “a new era” has begun for the church following the historic bishops' conference in Dallas last month, when stricter standards were adopted for handling sexual misconduct cases.

“The lawsuit is more of an invitation than a confrontation,” said Mr. Anderson, of St. Paul, who represents sex-abuse victims nationwide.

He said SNAP would like to “go to the table” with Bishop Hoffman before the lawsuit goes to trial and develop a plan for handling cases of sexual abuse by priests.

The victims' group is also urging the Toledo diocese to work with them in lobbying state lawmakers to extend the statute of limitations for criminal and civil cases involving sexual abuse of minors. In many cases, sex abusers in Ohio cannot be prosecuted after seven years.

Thomas Pletz, longtime attorney for the Toledo diocese, refused to comment on the proposed suit as well as the demands by SNAP to release the church records to the prosecutor's office.

“They can say whatever they want to say,” he said. “I'm not going to respond to that.”

Ms. Blaine told reporters that the bishop should follow the lead of other dioceses that are cooperating with authorities.

“Let's face it - child molesters belong in jail, they don't belong in the ranks of the priesthood,” she said.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles voluntarily turned his diocesan records of sex-abuse cases over to the local prosecutor's office, Ms. Blaine noted.

“He was more concerned about healing than lawsuits,” she said.

Mr. Crosby, a SNAP lawyer, said he was disappointed that Bishop Hoffman would not investigate accusations against priests who have died or left the priesthood.

“Why not? What about the victims?” he said. “Are they not victims anymore?”



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