Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Lawsuit: More abuse at Elder


Archdiocese knew about it, plaintiffs claim

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[img]
Attorney Jeff Anderson (right) from St. Paul Minnesota holds up a newly released document from the Vatican under Pope John XXIII which says that bishops are to keep secret crimes of solicitation by priests in order to avoid scandal.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati knew of several allegations of sexual abuse against a former Elder High School principal more than two decades ago but didn't remove him from priestly duties until a year ago, according to a lawsuit filed Monday by six men who say they were abused by the priest.

In the civil lawsuit, filed in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, the plaintiffs say the archdiocese and its leader, Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, knew of three separate, specific allegations of sexual abuse by the Rev. Lawrence Strittmatter at the venerable west side Catholic boys' school and at a later post at a Delhi Township parish.

The archdiocese did nothing after the first allegation, removed Strittmatter from Elder after the second, and sent him to a sexual offender treatment program following the third, the plaintiffs claim. The priest later was assigned to a Kettering, Ohio, parish.

The way the archdiocese handled the allegations stemmed from the Roman Catholic climate of control of that era, but was egregious, attorneys for the plaintiffs said at a press conference Monday.

Dan Andriacco, spokesman for the archdiocese, said Monday he had not seen the lawsuit but denied claims of deceiving parishioners.

"If we were engaging in an effort to cover up accused child abuse, it would be reasonable to assume we'd stop the victims from revealing it to police or to the media," Andriacco said. "But we've never done that."

The new suit is separate but virtually identical to one filed in May by four other alleged victims of Strittmatter.

The new allegations were reported during the 1979-'80 and 1980-'81 school years at Elder, and in 1988 while Strittmatter was pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish and School in Delhi, the suit alleges.

The 10 men - none of whom are named in the lawsuits - are current or former Cincinnatians, now between the ages of 33 and 44. At the time of the alleged abuse, the victims ranged roughly from fourth-grade students to high school seniors. In most cases, Strittmatter befriended the family then abused the children, Konrad Kircher, a Mason attorney who represents all 10 men, said at the press conference.

Strittmatter, who currently lives near Dayton, Ohio, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Neither lawsuit gives specific details of the abuse.

One of the four plaintiffs in Kircher's first lawsuit spoke publicly for the first time Monday from his home in Greenville, S.C., where he works as a clinical psychologist.

Jim Ruffing, a 1978 Elder graduate who said he was molested by Strittmatter during his senior year, said the only thing he regrets is not speaking up sooner.

"If I had just said something in 1978, maybe no one else would have gotten hurt," Ruffing said by phone from South Carolina. "People ask why it takes so long to overcome this. The emotional pain and embarrassment is just overwhelming. As a young kid going through this, you feel so much shame and guilt and think you caused it."

The first time the archdiocese received notice of Strittmatter molesting a student, Monday's eight-page complaint states, was during the 1979-1980 school year. The archdiocese did nothing, the suit says.

The second round of allegations came the following school year from a different student. The church conducted an investigation, removed Strittmatter as Elder principal, and sent him to counseling, the plaintiffs say. Shortly after, he was named pastor at Our Lady of Victory, "an institution which catered to even younger children," the lawsuit states.

The third time the archdiocese learned of allegations of sexual abuse by Strittmatter, in 1988, the church removed Strittmatter from Our Lady of Victory and sent him to sexual offender treatment, according to the lawsuit. He later was named assistant pastor at St. Albert the Great Church in Kettering, where his limited contact with children was supervised, the suit says.

Pilarczyk has served as archbishop since 1982.

After Bob Fricke of Price Hill, an Elder alumnus, accused Strittmatter - or "Father Stritty," as he was known at Elder - in 2002 of sexual abuse during an off-campus racquetball game more than two decades before, Strittmatter was placed on administrative leave, the strongest action an archbishop can take against a priest.

These instances of sexual abuse are only a fraction of the total, said victims' attorneys in a press conference Monday at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral downtown.

"Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Strittmatter continued to molest unassuming students," the lawsuit says.

Andriacco said he's waiting until the case is in court to respond to specific questions.

"These guys have chosen to make a media circus out of this," Andriacco said. "Trials shouldn't be tried in the media, and we're not going to do that."

Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney who has tried more than 600 clergy sexual abuse cases nationwide during the past 20 years, also represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Monday. He joined Kircher and David Clohessy, director of a clergy sexual abuse survivors' group, at the Monday press conference.

The lawsuit comes in the midst of legal wrangling nationwide in which the Catholic church is being accused of covering up hundreds of priest sexual abuse cases for decades and moving suspected abusers from parish to parish.

Each of the 10 plaintiffs in the Cincinnati lawsuits seek in excess of $1 million in damages.

Both the archdiocese and victims' advocacy groups have encouraged local victims of sexual abuse by clergy to alert authorities, irrespective of the date the sexual abuse happened.

"The one thing we've learned is that silence is deadly," said Clohessy, the director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which has 4,600 victim members nationally.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen has battled the archdiocese for more than a year to determine if it withheld evidence of criminal behavior by priests.

Allen said Monday he couldn't comment on the latest lawsuit, but also said it was clear the archdiocese should have reported the claims of sexual abuse.

"They have a legal and moral obligation to report these misconducts," said Allen, a Catholic and an Elder graduate. "When they don't do that, that's when we have these problems. It's really a two-fold problem - the abuse itself and reporting it to authorities."

E-mail rforgrave@enquirer.com

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