Sunday, August 17, 2003

Speak out now

Elder: Abuse ignored

So far at least 10 former students have filed suit alleging sexual abuse at the hands of former Elder High School Principal Lawrence Strittmatter.

The accusations have been public for months. The suit claims the abuse occurred while Strittmatter was principal at Elder in the 1970s and 1980s. Officials of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati first heard allegations against the priest in 1988. The archdiocese removed Strittmatter from one assignment and ordered him into treatment. Yet, incredibly, his portrait remained on the wall in the entryway of the venerable west side Catholic school until a public outcry prompted its removal last Tuesday.

The gesture is symbolic of the lack of empathy and understanding the archdiocese has exhibited in the church's ongoing sexual abuse scandals.

Elder Principal Tom Otten told The Enquirer that Strittmatter's picture was left on the wall with those of other former principals because until five more plaintiffs sued last week, "we didn't know the extent of what we were looking at."

How extensive does abuse have to be before it registers?

What the victims of abuse were looking at every time they walked in Elder's door was the portrait of the alleged abuser being kept in a place of honor, even after the church had acknowledged that he had done such things. Is it any wonder that abuse victims often hesitate to come forward?

Otten removed pictures of all the former principals because he didn't want Strittmatter to be singled out. "It was a matter of how much attention you want to call to who is missing," he said.

That is just the point. Abusers should be singled out, and places like Elder should not be afraid of dealing openly with the problem. David Clohessy, an advocate for abuse victims (see Forum cover), suggested that the school should send letters to all alumni and their families explaining the Strittmatter situation and encouraging anyone else who may have been victimized to come forward.

It is only through such openness that the stigma of such abuse can be erased and that the victims and the school can begin to heal.

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