Thursday, January 23, 2003

Priest subject of investigation

Covington Diocese faces lawsuit

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A suspended Diocese of Covington priest, the Rev. Louis J. Holtz, is the target of a criminal investigation into alleged sexual abuse against a minor nearly 30 years ago, the Campbell County prosecutor said Wednesday.

The investigation has been under way for at least two months, said Jack Porter, commonwealth attorney for Kentucky's 17th district.

At the same time, the diocese is being sued by another man who says he is a victim of Father Holtz. The priest was first accused of abuse by one of his alleged victims last June in an Enquirer story.

The suit, filed in Boone County Circuit Court, says the diocese should have known that Father Holtz was a potential abuser. The diocese acted "in a grossly negligent, reckless and careless fashion ... (and failed) to report such conduct to the appropriate authorities and to the parents or guardians of the victims," charges the suit, which does not specify monetary damages.

Neither the diocese nor Father Holtz had any comment Wednesday on either the investigation or the suit.

The investigation and the suit come after Bernard Gerhardstein of Fort Thomas told the Enquirer that Father Holtz abused him over a period of 1 years beginning in 1974 in rural Campbell County, when he was 13.

Mr. Gerhardstein disclosed that he settled out of court in August 1997 with the diocese for an undisclosed sum and with Father Holtz for $10,000 in a separate agreement. He violated a confidentiality agreement to tell his story, but the diocese has not taken any action against him.

Mr. Gerhardstein, now 41, said he met with Campbell County prosecutors in the fall. Those meetings turned into a criminal investigation of the alleged abuse.

"At this point, all I am hoping for is justice through openness and truth for myself and anyone else who may have been harmed by these circumstances," said Mr. Gerhardstein, who acknowledges making initial contact with the prosecutor's office. "I'm not looking for vindication. I actually feel better since coming out into the open with this."

Mr. Porter said Kentucky State Police detectives began conducting the investigation into Father Holtz in late October or early November. The investigation was triggered by his initial meeting with Mr. Gerhardstein in September.

"After meeting with the victim, I got a sense of the impact on his life, and the potential impact on other lives who may be involved," Mr. Porter said. "When I raised my right hand to take the oath of this office, I didn't just promise to prosecute crimes that were committed yesterday. If a criminal case occurred 20 years ago and we can prove it, we have to go forward."

Mr. Porter said that because the case involves potential felonies, there is no statute of limitations in Kentucky.

He would not comment on specifics of the investigation, saying that it was ongoing and that he would prosecute aggressively if enough evidence was uncovered.

He also said that he would pursue other cases. "But if we don't have anybody else coming forward, we're not going to try (to) create something here," Mr. Porter said.

The diocese suspended Father Holtz indefinitely in 1995 after Mr. Gerhardstein first informed local church officials of the alleged abuse.

Father Holtz agreed to undergo "laicization" at the time, but applied to be defrocked by the Vatican only last July.

According to diocesan officials, the Vatican has not yet officially defrocked Father Holtz. But he is no longer being referred to as "father" by the church, cannot present himself as a priest or perform priestly duties in public.

"He cannot wear priestly garb as well, but it will take some time for the Vatican to make his laicization official," diocesan spokesman Tim Fitzgerald said Wednesday.

Mr. Fitzgerald said he could not comment on the criminal investigation or the lawsuit because they were pending.

The lawsuit against the diocese was filed Dec. 20. Mark Fischer of Billings, Mont., says Father Holtz sexually abused him when he was attending Newport Central Catholic High School, where the priest was a teacher.

Newport Catholic was Father Holtz's assignment prior to being placed at the Holy Family convent and retirement home in Melbourne in rural Campbell County. That is where Mr. Gerhardstein says he met Father Holtz and started a friendship that soon turned sexually abusive.

Father Holtz last June denied any other sexual abuse, but would not comment on Mr. Gerhardstein's allegations.

Mr. Fischer did not return phone calls to his home seeking comment.

His lawyer, Bob Steinberg, would not comment beyond what was in the lawsuit. The suit claims the abuse took place when Mr. Fischer was 13, beginning about 1970 and ending in 1973.

"These acts all occurred without (Mr. Fischer's) consent and against his will, and as a direct and proximate result of the diocese's policy and practice of concealment and toleration of acts of sexual misconduct by its priests," the suit says.

Patrick Crowley contributed to this story.


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