By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Faced with mounting public pressure and new allegations of abuse, Elder High School officials on Tuesday took down the portrait of a former principal accused of molesting students.
Elder High School principal Tom Otten stands in the hallway where portraits of former principals once hung. The only one left on the wall is that of Archbishop William Henry Elder.|
(Ernest Coleman photos)
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Elder's current principal, Tom Otten, said he removed the portrait of the Rev. Lawrence Strittmatter from the school's lobby because he didn't want to give the impression that the school remained supportive of the suspended priest.
"Having the picture up is, I think, sending the wrong message," Otten said. "We're not supporting anything that happened. We don't want to send that message, and we don't want to have to defend it."
Strittmatter's portrait had become a symbol in recent months to those who have criticized the Archdiocese of Cincinnati for its handling of priests accused of sexual misconduct.
Two victims' rights groups have argued that displaying Strittmatter's portrait is an insult to all abuse victims, including the 10 men who have accused the priest of abusing them when they were teenagers in the 1970s and 1980s.
One of those groups, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), sent representatives to Elder's Price Hill campus Tuesday to demand the portrait's removal.
SNAP's director, David Clohessy, was stunned Tuesday when he entered the school and saw that the portrait was gone. He said it was still on display when he visited the school Monday.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, had asked Elder High School to remove former principal Lawrence Strittmatter's portrait.|
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Clohessy shook hands with Otten and thanked him for taking the portrait down.
"It's an extraordinarily simple but powerful gesture," Clohessy said.
Another victims' group, Voice of the Faithful, asked Otten to remove the portrait two months ago when allegations against Father Strittmatter first arose. But the principal decided then that it should remain in the lobby, alongside portraits of other former principals, the archbishop and the Pope.
Otten said he changed his mind Monday after six more people sued Father Strittmatter, bringing the total number of accusers to 10.
"Until yesterday's revelations," Otten said, "we didn't know the extent of what we were looking at."
The only portrait that remained in the foyer Tuesday was one of the school's namesake, former Archbishop William Henry Elder.
Otten said he decided to remove the entire display because it seemed inappropriate to hang portraits of every former principal but one. "It was a matter of how much attention you want to call to who is missing," Otten said.
Archdiocese officials were unaware of Otten's decision and said he was under no obligation to consult with them.
"The archdiocese is not in the practice of telling principals how to decorate their walls," said church spokesman Dan Andriacco.
Clohessy, an outspoken critic of church officials in Cincinnati and around the country, said he hoped the decision to remove Strittmatter's portrait was a sign of things to come.
He said the archdiocese must be more supportive of abuse victims and must be more aggressive in its discipline of abusive priests.
As abuse scandals across the country have shown, Clohessy said, the Catholic Church has been too secretive for too long in its handling of abuse allegations. Church officials in Cincinnati dispute that contention, saying they have been as open about abuse cases as the law allows.
During a half-hour meeting with Otten on Tuesday, Clohessy asked the principal to send a letter to alumni alerting them to the allegations against Strittmatter and asking them to come forward with any information about sexual abuse.
"The practice and pattern has been a passive approach, and that's not enough," Clohessy told Otten. "You have got to reach out to them. A letter from you, that sends a real powerful message."
Otten said he would consider the request and would make a decision before school starts in two weeks.
He also told Clohessy that Elder, along with other Catholic schools, had taken steps in the past year to prevent future abuse. He cited a two-day sexual abuse education program aimed at teaching students how to recognize abuse and how to get help.
"You have to be sure the children are safe," Otten said.
Clohessy said the program is a positive step, as is the removal of Strittmatter's portrait.
But he said reaching out to alumni with a letter is just as important because it would encourage victims to come forward, not only to testify against their abuser but to get the help they need to cope with the abuse.
"It's the pastoral thing to do," Clohessy said. "It's the Christian thing to do."
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