Thursday, March 13, 2003

Covington Diocese must open its files

Alleged sex-abuse victims win ruling

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

BURLINGTON - A Boone County judge has ordered the Diocese of Covington to open its archive to a Cincinnati attorney trying to prove that church leaders permitted an atmosphere in which sexual abuse of children was tolerated.

The archive will be given to attorney Stan Chesley, who will review the file. Chesley thinks the contents will show the diocese did not take proper steps to prevent priests from abusing children. If it had, Chesley said, accused child molester the Rev. Louis J. Holtz wouldn't have been in a position to abuse Chesley's client, Mark Fischer.

"I'm very pleased," said Chesley, who is representing several people who claimed they were abused by priests in Northern Kentucky. "No one is above the law."

Chesley has filed a suit in Boone County requesting certification of a class-action.

In that case, he argues that abuse by priests within the diocese affected hundreds of victims dating to 1952.

Diocese spokesman Tim Fitzgerald said the church will comply with the ruling by Boone Circuit Judge Jay Bamberger. Fitzgerald declined to answer other questions about the case. The Covington Diocese oversees 32 elementary schools, nine high schools and a college.

There is a similar argument going on in Hamilton County about which Archdiocese of Cincinnati records Prosecutor Mike Allen will be allowed to see in his investigation of sexual abuse by priests in Ohio.

The ruling applies to a suit filed by Fischer, a Northern Kentucky native who now lives in Billings, Mont. Fischer claims he was sexually abused while attending Newport Central Catholic High School by Holtz, a former teacher at the school. The suit claims the abuse began in 1970, when Fischer was 13, and continued for three years.

Holtz last served as a pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Hebron, from which he retired in 1995 citing poor health.

The church is taking steps to defrock Holtz.

Allegations that Holtz molested a second boy in the 1970s are being invested by Kentucky State Police detectives assigned to Post 6 in Dry Ridge.

Holtz and the Covington Diocese have already settled out of court in a third case. In that one, Bernard Gerhardstein of Fort Thomas accused Holtz of abuse at Holy Family Convent and St. Phillip's in Melbourne.

While Holtz is not named as a defendant in Fischer's suit, the Covington Diocese is. Chesley maintains that the diocese had a longstanding practice of concealing information that it regularly obtained regarding sexually abusive conduct against minors by Holtz and other priests, which he says encouraged such sexual abuse to continue.

To help prove those allegations, Chesley sought to review the diocese's personnel records, some of which could be contained in Canon 489 files, sometimes call the "secret archives."

Chesley said that if he finds information in the archive relevant to his case, he will have to go back to court to show the relevance.

Otherwise, no one else will be allowed to see the archive.

"We think the documents will be very relevant and important in the trial and proceeding of the Fischer case," Chesley said.

"We don't want the diocese to tell us what's important and what's not important. We want to make that determination, because we have that burden of proof."

The motion requests access to the secret-archive deposition testimony of a now-deceased diocesan chancellor and canon lawyer, the Rev. Roger Kriege, when he was testifying for the diocese in a civil suit involving former Covington priest Earl Bierman in 1998.

Bierman pleaded guilty in 1993 to 25 counts of molestation of six teenage boys connected with Covington Latin High School, Newport Central Catholic High School and St. Patrick School in Maysville. He is serving a 20-year sentence at the Kentucky State Reformatory at LaGrange.

A ruling is still pending on a class-action proposal related to another lawsuit filed by Chesley on behalf of two people who say they were sexually abused by priests in elementary school. One of those priests, the suit alleges, was Holtz.


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