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Published: Wednesday, 10/16/2002

Suit claims area priest abused boy in 1970s

BY MICHAEL D. SALLAH AND DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

A longtime Toledo-area priest who served in numerous churches and schools since 1966 has been accused of repeatedly sexually abusing a boy two decades ago in a church rectory.

The Rev. Bernard “Bernie” Kokocinski was sued yesterday in Lucas County Common Pleas Court by a former student, who alleges he was raped and molested by the priest at St. Joseph's Church in Fremont.

William Claar, who lives in Alaska, alleges that Father Kokocinski used his “position of trust and control” to forge a friendship with the youth, and then took advantage of him between 1975 and 1977.

“I have carried this guilt and shame around with me ever since,” says Mr. Claar, 43. “I felt disgusted and ashamed. I thought there was something wrong with me.”

Mr. Kokocinski, 64, now pastor at St. Anthony's Church in Columbus Grove, said he was unaware of the suit yesterday and declined comment.

The case is the eleventh such lawsuit filed against a local priest and the Toledo Catholic Diocese since April, and one of nine that alleges diocesan leaders knew of “a widespread pattern” of sexual misconduct among its clerics but failed to stem the problem.

The Rev. Michael Billian, diocesan chancellor, said yesterday he had not seen the suit and could not comment.

Bishop James Hoffman, who was unavailable, has maintained that he has been sensitive to victims since the diocese established its Policy on Response to Child Abuse and Adult Sexual Misconduct in 1995.

Additionally, he has met with Toledo leaders of the group SNAP - Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests - and regularly meets with victims.

The lawsuit yesterday does not name the bishop, who took office in 1981, but claims church leaders knew Father Kokocinski was “sexually abusing and exploiting children” since taking his vows in 1966.

David Zoll, a Sylvania attorney who filed the case, said his client has been “pained” by his experiences for more than 25 years. “It wasn't easy for him to step forward,” he said. “He felt very much alone and lived with this for a long time, but he felt that he needed to come out.”

Mr. Zoll said his client was a grade school altar boy when he met the priest, but the alleged abuse did not begin until his client was a 14-year-old freshman at St. Joseph's Central Catholic High School in Fremont.

The suit claims the sexual encounters “occurred on numerous occasions at St. Joseph's Parish Rectory.”

Mr. Claar transferred to a public high school to get away from the priest, and after graduation joined the military and eventually moved to Anchorage, Alaska.

A Toledo native, Father Kokocinski has been assigned to nearly a dozen churches and schools during his ministry, including Toledo churches St. Adalbert's, St. Patrick of Heatherdowns, Our Lady of Lourdes, and St. Charles, as well as Saints Peter and Paul in Sandusky and St. Mary's in Vermilion.

The 13-count civil complaint asks for more than $25,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

Since September, the diocese has been targeted by eight lawsuits against former Toledo priest Dennis Gray, who is accused of abusing and raping young boys at his cottage in Michigan in the 1980s.

The 54-year-old former cleric left the priesthood in 1987 and was hired as a dean of students in Toledo public schools.

After The Blade revealed accusations from his past on Sept. 16, he was transferred to a job supervising janitors at night.

After using numerous sick days, he was placed on unpaid leave yesterday.



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