Saturday, May 24, 2003

Alumni are solidly behind Elder


Bad-apple priests can't destroy traditions, they say

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rev. Lawrence Strittmatter's portrait still hangs in the entrance to Elder High School, alongside a portrait of the pope, an American flag and several bright purple "Go Panthers" signs left over from the school's state football championship last fall.

The display is the essence of Elder: God. Country. Football. All symbols of a school that has become, for better or worse, the heart of Catholic life on Cincinnati's west side.

Until recently, Father Strittmatter fit neatly among those symbols. The former Elder principal was considered a dedicated teacher and friend who had devoted much of his life to the Catholic boys school in Price Hill.

STORY ARCHIVE
Click here for all Enquirer reports on accusations or actions against local priests.
Now, in a $1 million lawsuit filed this week, he stands accused of molesting some of his students in the 1970s and early 1980s. He is one of three priests with ties to Elder who have been accused during the past year of some form of misconduct.

Similar allegations against priests have shocked, angered and saddened millions of Catholics across the country.

But at Elder, the news hit especially hard.

"It's difficult," said Tom Otten, Elder's principal. "I've never dealt with anything like this before."

The feelings run deep because Elder is more than a high school. It is, for many, the center of the Catholic universe in one of the most Catholic communities in Greater Cincinnati, and it is as revered as any cathedral or parish church in town.

As students and alumni are fond of saying, "Elder is different." The combination of religion, sports and conservative west side tradition breeds a loyalty unmatched by most schools, Catholic or otherwise.

Generations of young men from west side families have attended Elder. Many of them stay in the community, start families of their own and send their sons to Elder.

"You see the same names every year when you go down the list of freshmen, the same families," said Joe Acito, an English teacher at Elder for 35 years. "There is this intense loyalty."

And there is intense pain and disappointment when the school suffers a setback, as it did when the misconduct allegations first surfaced last summer.

"It's embarrassing, but we're not hiding from it," Acito said. "People here want to do something. They want to deal with it head-on."

Most of the allegations about the three priests date back at least 20 years, and all but the ones involving Father Strittmatter are supposed to have occurred when the priests were not at Elder.

The Rev. Thomas Kuhn, who succeeded Father Strittmatter as principal in 1981, was suspended last year from his Dayton parish after someone complained about files found on his church computers. The Rev. James Kiffmeyer took a leave from teaching at Elder because of accusations involving a former student at another school.

The accusations have spurred debate among faculty, students and alumni. Are the allegations true? And if so, how could this have happened at Elder?

"I don't know how stupid I want to feel, but I did not pick up on anything like this," said Otten, who was an assistant principal under Strittmatter. "Some say there were whispers (about misconduct). Well, nobody whispered to me."

Otten met with some of Strittmatter's alleged victims last year. All were Elder graduates, and all felt a profound sense of betrayal.

"It was horrible," Otten said, recalling the conversations. "This happened while these kids were at Elder, when they were students here."

He shakes his head, as if that's still the hardest part to believe, that it could happen here. His office, decorated in the school's purple and white colors, is a shrine to all things Elder: A bobblehead panther on his desk, a panther poster on the wall, a stained glass panther on the window.

Few understand the school's tradition as well as Otten does. And yet, he knows the school can't rely on its reputation alone to make things right.

That's why he and other school officials publicly apologized last summer. They said they never suspected anything might be amiss, and they vowed it would never happen again. This year, the school brought in the Council on Child Abuse to put on a two-day educational program for students, parents and faculty.

"We had to assure parents that we're going to take care of your kids," Otten said. "We'll make sure they're safe."

Few in the community seem to doubt his word. The school's enrollment is expected to go up next year, from 990 to 1,010. And the annual alumni fundraiser has collected the usual $500,000.

"It kind of tarnishes the name of Elder, but I look at all the good things and they far outweigh the bad," said Bill Studt, an Elder alumnus who is the father of three Elder graduates, an Elder sophomore and an eighth-grader who will be an Elder freshman next year.

He said the school's strength is its history and its army of alumni, which includes everyone from doctors to lawyers to artists.

"It's an institution, let me tell you," Studt said. "For people that don't understand the mystique of the school, they don't really understand what it's all about."

The school represents everything that's important to its graduates, Studt said. It's about religion and sports and community.

"All of my kids are going to go there," he said.

"My kids will go there, too," said his son, Ben, a sophomore football player.

Theresa Kelley couldn't go to Elder, but she's lived across the street from the school for 28 years. She said the abuse allegations hurt but are no threat to the school's reputation.

"Oh, God no," Kelley said. "Elder is Elder. Everybody supports Elder."

For one Elder graduate, Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen, the abuse allegations have been more than a black mark on a beloved alma mater. It's his job to investigate the accusations and determine whether criminal charges can be filed.

He wouldn't comment on that investigation. But he said he's confident his high school will endure.

"Elder is a very important part of the community," Allen said. "It's something very special and very rare in today's world."

E-mail dhorn@enquirer.com




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