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Published: Friday, 5/30/2003

Van Wert priest sued over abuse allegations

An Adrian man who has been frustrated with the Toledo Catholic Diocese's handling of his allegations of sexual abuse filed a lawsuit yesterday against a priest who he alleges sexually abused him at a West Toledo church 20 years ago.

Jon Schoonmaker filed the lawsuit against the Rev. Joseph Schmelzer, who has been on leave of absence since January from a parish in Van Wert, Ohio. He was placed on leave because of Mr. Schoonmaker's allegations.

The Catholic Diocese of Toledo and St. Clement's Church on Tremainsville Road were also named as defendants in the lawsuit. Mr. Schoonmaker is asking for more than $25,000 in compensatory damages and unspecified punitive damages.

The lawsuit, filed in Lucas County Common Pleas Court, alleges that Father Schmelzer sexually abused him at St. Clement's Church during a “spiritual counseling session.” Mr. Schoonmaker was 17 at the time.

The lawsuit, assigned to Judge James Jensen, also claims Mr. Schoonmaker, 36, told a priest who was Father Schmelzer's supervisor about the alleged molestation three years later, but the priest assured him the incident “was just Father Schmelzer's way of showing affection.”

Father Schmelzer has been pastor at St. Mary Parish in Van Wert since 1996. He was placed on leave in January after Mr. Schoonmaker made the allegations of sexual abuse against him. A special three-judge tribunal of priests is investigating the claim.

Mr. Schoonmaker has alleged that Father Schmelzer began touching him in a sexual manner when he was a minor, and that a sexual assault occurred when he was 19 years old.

He first spoke publicly about the alleged incidents in July during a press conference at the Lucas County courthouse after a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by a former priest was filed against the diocese. That case did not involve Mr. Schoonmaker.

So far, 14 lawsuits accusing priests and former priests of sexual misconduct have been filed in common pleas court since April, 2002.

In the lawsuit, Mr. Schoonmaker alleges that he told the late Bishop James Hoffman about the alleged incidents involving Father Schmelzer in 1992 but he was urged not to make the matter public as to spare the diocese from embarrassment.

In an interview yesterday, he said he was hesitant to file a lawsuit, but he believed it was the only method available to protect children from molestation.

“Every attempt I have made to deal with the diocese outside the courtroom has not been received by them. I feel like the diocese is almost nudging me into a legal battle,” Mr. Schoonmaker said.

Father Schmelzer, who was ordained in 1977, has maintained he did nothing wrong. He could not be reached for comment. Richard Karcher, the priest's attorney, said he would not comment because he had not read the complaint.

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