Sunday, August 26, 2001

The judge vs. the archdiocese

Sex-abuse case triggered rebuke

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — When Kenton District Judge Doug Grothaus scolded the Archdiocese of Cincinnati from the bench last week for allowing a child molester to coach girls when they knew his past, it was more than a judge talking. It was a disappointed Catholic.

        Judge Grothaus, typically soft-spoken in court, became unusually animated as he accused local church leaders of failing to check the background of a sex offender. Then he encouraged families of the victimized teens to sue the archdiocese.

        “I believe it needed to be said,” Judge Grothaus said during a subsequent interview in his office Thursday.

        “Was it anger? No. Disappointment? Yes. When I took this job, the advice my father gave me was do what's right, not necessarily what's popular.”

        Judge Grothaus, 39, has been a judge three years and had been prosecutor 13 years. A practicing Roman Catholic, he was educated in parochial schools.

        His rebuke was triggered by the case of Villa Hills resident Thomas Rohrkasse, a 37-year-old volunteer basketball coach at St. Antoninus Church in Green Township who was accused of sexually abusing two girls.

        The judge's statements harkened to an older case, in which ex-priest Earl Bierman was convicted of molesting young boys for years, a fact church officials allegedly kept quiet until he was convicted in 1993.

        That is why, Judge Grothaus said, he urged the families of Mr. Rohrkasse's victims to file lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

        “That seems to be the only way we are going to keep the church, and other organizations, from sweeping these incidents under the rug,” he said in court.

        Mr. Rohrkasse was charged in June with providing alcohol to six underage girls he had invited to his Northern Kentucky home for a sleep-over in April. He also was charged with sexually abusing two of them.

        Under terms of a plea agreement, Mr. Rohrkasse pleaded guilty to one charge of sex abuse and six charges of providing alcohol to a minor and was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

        Judge Grothaus criticized the deal, saying that a pre-sentencing report by the Kenton County Probation Department reveals previous allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Rohrkasse coming from a St. Antoninus family as early as 1999. That allegation involved a young girl at a church festival. No one pursued charges in that case.

        And in 1993, Mr. Rohrkasse was charged with sexual abuse in a Campbell County case that, according to court records, resulted in a conviction on a less serious charge of disorderly conduct. He was sentenced to two years probation, prohibited from any contact with the victim, and ordered to undergo treatment.

        Judge Grothaus said in court Mr. Rohrkasse had been accused of fondling a friend's 12-year-old daughter.

        It is impossible to know the past of every person working with children, be they teachers, coaches, priests or anyone else, the judge said; “but once you have that knowledge you need to act.”

        Archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco said in an interview that he takes exception to the judges' comments. A “miscommunication” within the parish, not a coverup by the archdiocese, allowed Mr. Rohrkasse to continue coaching when he should not have been.

        “The judge's presuppositions underlying his comments are not in accord with the facts as we understand them,” Mr. Andriacco said.

        “But in addition to that, he said that time and time again the church condoned this activity. I really take exception to that.

        “The fact is that for eight years we've had in place a very strong decree on child protection. We have put 10,000 people through the training session. Everyone who works with children is required to take it.”

        Mr. Andriacco acknowledged that the archdiocese's child protection system should have prevented Mr. Rohrkasse from coaching young girls.

        Judge Grothaus said he doesn't think the archdiocese is doing enough.

        “Whether it be miscommunication or otherwise, something like that comes out involving a coach or other person in a position of trust, I think they have a higher duty,” Judge Grothaus said.

        “I'm not saying anybody necessarily intentionally did something. But even miscommunication on information such as that is negligent.”

        As a prosecutor in Kenton County's Commonwealth Attorney's office, Judge Grothaus earned a reputation for effectively handling sex abuse cases involving minors. He would become dismayed, he said, when it appeared that institutions failed to protect the young against sexual predators.

        “You bring your life experience to the bench,” Judge Grothaus said. “It's not just the church. It's public schools. There are other organizations where it has happened.

        “It has gotten better over the years (but) the tendency is for these organization to obviously not want the publicity, and I think cases in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati over the years have shown that.”

        One of the most well-known cases involved Father Bierman, who in 1993 pleaded guilty to molesting six young males during the 1960s and 1970s, when he was a teacher at Covington Latin School. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and was denied parole in 1997.

        John Secter, a victim who is now a Fort Thomas veterinarian, received $750,000 in compensation because the archdiocese concealed information that Father Bierman had abused a number of other children over several years.

        Mr. Secter said last week that Judge Grothaus' comments about the church and his suggestion that the families seek civil remedies is “absolutely refreshing.”

        “I think the church needs to be held accountable,” Mr. Secter said.

        Boone County District Judge Michael Collins said understands Judge Grothaus' reasons.

        “Sometimes in court you have some very strong feelings about a case, and I can see where his feelings came to the forefront,” Judge Collins said last week.

        “Doug is a good person. He's highly respected. Sometimes when you're on the bench you need to speak out.”

        Judge Grothaus said he made his comments as both a judge and a Catholic. He wanted the church to know how he felt.

        “I think I sent the message,” he said.


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