Sunday, August 10, 2003

Troubles test parishioners' trust

Some Catholics protest by refusing to give money

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

In Cincinnati's staunchest Catholic neighborhoods, faith is virtually unshakable. But as a series of scandals - from embezzlement to child abuse continues to unfold in the west side, that allegiance is being tested like never before.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati acknowledges that parishioners are angry, and officials said some are expressing their ire and disappointment by withholding contributions to various church funds.

"A lot of people feel like that is the only tool they have to express their feelings," Dan Andriacco, archdiocese spokesman, said last week. "We feel that (anger) as much as we feel the financial impact ... But the financial impact hurts people who were in no way responsible for those (scandals)."

Andriacco said he can't put a dollar figure on the amount withheld, but his acknowledgement contrasts with what officials said last year at the height of national priest scandals. At that time, the archdiocese said Cincinnati was not suffering any monetary fallout because of the scandals.

The Cincinnati archdiocese, which oversees 230 parishes in Southwest Ohio, has a budget of more than $42 million, of which 70 percent comes from parish donations.

While the church continues to receive letters from people refusing to donate because of national and local scandals - like the resignation last week of a Green Township priest after he was found guilty of soliciting a male police officer for sex - others are contributing more in recognition of the church's troubles, officials said.

"It's frustrating to us," Andriacco said. "We understand there are people in pain. They may think of the diocese as downtown. They may think that we are insensitive to their pain. Sometimes we don't know the right thing to do."

The archbishop's fund, which pays for administrative costs, hasn't fallen short, he said.

Elder affected

For more than a year, the west side Catholic community has been reeling from a series of scandals: Embezzlement by a church treasurer; a volunteer female coach stalking a boy soccer player, and priests and principals accused of abuse at Elder High School - the Price Hill boys school that for many Cincinnatians represents the heart of Catholic life on the west side.

The Cincinnati archdiocese has paid about $2.5 million in settlements with victims of church abuse.

The local scandals have played out against the backdrop of national headlines and nightly news accounts of how the Catholic Church covered up clergy sexual abuse and moved accused priests to new parishes. On Friday, the Boston diocese offered $55 million to settle more than 500 clergy sex abuse lawsuits. In June, the archdiocese of Louisville agreed to pay $25.7 million to 243 people who said they were abused by clergy.

"Is your faith in God or is it in priests?" queried Russ Brown, former parish council president at St. Antoninus in Covedale, where several of the west side scandals unfolded. "I don't think that God has failed me."

The most recent scandal to wash over west side parishes unfolded at Our Lady of Visitation parish in Green Township. As the parish prepared for its annual fund-raising festival this weekend, many members were still wrestling with last week's revelation that their priest solicited a Dayton, Ohio, police officer for sex in a restroom.

The Rev. Anthony Brausch, who was named temporary administrator after the Rev. Raymond Larger was stripped of his powers and put on administrative leave last week, said the scandal impacts the weekend's festival.

"From everything I've seen, the people are determined to move forward and have a successful festival," Brausch said. "It is going to be a topic. But this is their festival, and they have taken ownership of it."

Carting tall crates of bottled soda from a truck to an ice bin, festival volunteer Ed Huber wiped the sweat from his brow and looked toward the chapel.

"Does it hurt to see these things? Yes," Huber said. "Does it mean the whole institution is bad? No."

Like most people working at the festival, he is deeply connected to the church and the school, where four of his children are enrolled. He said he contributes time and money because he knows it will be used to benefit someone in need.

"I don't like the offenses that occur," Huber said, adding that he doesn't pay much attention to the church hierarchy. "It's too early to pass judgment on how it has been handled. It's too early to pass comment."

Glenn Bujnoch acknowledged people are sad and hurt, but he said it is difficult to place blame. A longtime member of Visitation, he said the festival is as much about the people who attend the church than it is about the church itself.

He acknowledged that many people are upset about the way the Catholic Church has dealt with the scandals in general and that some have stopped contributing money. But for the most part, he said, people are pulling together.

"We are still a parish," Bujnoch said. "The biggest law of the Bible is that you have got to forgive."

A plague of troubles

St. Antoninus, the Covedale parish, also has had its share of trouble. Most recently, a church treasurer pleaded guilty to taking $60,000. In 2001, a volunteer soccer coach was convicted of stalking a player on the St. Antoninus team and a volunteer basketball coach was accused of fondling girls during a team sleepover at his house.

Brown said donations are down - and that the church has dipped into its reserve - but he said there is not a direct correlation to trouble at the church. Rather, he said, other factors - including a weakened economy - have contributed to the downturn in donations.

Brown said parishioners are disappointed by the actions of a few clergy and church officials nationally. Older parishioners, he said, have been particularly shaken.

"People are finding out that we have human priests. Everybody thought that for all of these years these people should be put on a pedestal," he said.

Elder Principal Tom Otten said the school was rocked as separate allegations surfaced about former teachers and a principal last year.

"I was amazed," he said. "It just continued to surprise me last spring. We'd get over one and then the next one would pop up."

Students, staff and parents have been counseled on how to handle abuse allegations in the future. "People are seeing that we are doing what we say we are going to do," Otten said.

School enrollment is up and fund-raising hasn't dipped, he said.

One unidentified donor returned a pledge card to Elder with a letter refusing to donate, saying he wasn't mad at Elder but upset in general about the alleged abuse.

Otten said the school has weathered the storm.

"We're glad to see enrollment is up,'' he said. "It says something about where people put their faith.''


West-side church scandals

Aug. 5: - Raymond Larger, 52, a priest at Our Lady of Visitation pleaded no contest to charges that he solicited an undercover police officer for sex and was found guilty.

July 21: - St. Antoninus Church treasurer Deborah Hughes, 39, pleaded guilty to embezzling $60,000 from the church altar and school society.

June 2002 - The Rev. Lawrence Strittmatter, Elder High School principal from 1970 to 1982, placed on administrative leave from St. Albert the Great parish in Kettering, Ohio, after a former Elder student said he was sexually abused by Strittmatter in the late 1970s

May 2002 - Former Elder High principal Rev. Thomas Kuhn placed on administrative leave from his Dayton, Ohio, parish after complaints about files found on his computer. Kuhn resigned two months later.

April 2002 - Elder High teacher and priest James G. Kiffmeyer, 45, took a leave of absence following allegations by a student, who said he was abused during the late 1980s while he was senior at Middletown's Fenwick High School. Kiffmeyer, who taught at Fenwick from 1985 to 1991, denied the allegations.

Aug. 8, 2001 - Thomas Rohrkasse, 37, a volunteer girls basketball coach at St. Antoninus in Covedale, is convicted of one count of illegal sexual contact and six counts of unlawful transaction with a minor during a sleepover at his home for the girls' team.

July 25, 2001 - St. Antoninus volunteer coach Lisa Dunaway, 32, sentenced to 18 months in prison after stalking a teen-age player on the St. Antoninus team.

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