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Making Changes In Church Policy

Tuesday, June 18, 2002 at 1:03 PM

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Bishop Anthony Pilla now faces applying a new policy to priests accused of sexual abuse in the Cleveland Diocese. The procedure adopted at the national meeting of Catholic Bishops strips priests who molest of their duties and keeps them away from parishoners - but it lets them keep keep their titles and remain in the priesthood. This spring, Pilla placed a dozen priests on administrative leave. According to a diocese official, allegations of past sexual abuse have been confirmed against almost all of them. While the Cleveland Diocese is working to restructure its response to clergy abuse, area Catholics are still digesting the outcome of the Bishop's conference. 90.3 WCPN's Renita Jablonski reports.

Renita Jablonski: Joseph Bensi was up late this weekend - glued to his television, watching updates of the U.S. Bishop’s conference in Dallas.

Joseph Bensi: And I kept waiting for more. I kept waiting for someone to say something that would not so much reach out to me but would reach out to the victims and the people who are questioning whether or not their church is doing the right thing, and it just never came.

RJ: The issue of sexual abuse in the church is one of particular interest to Bensi, not only because he’s Catholic, but because he’s seen first hand how sexual abuse affects children and their families. He’s a detective with the Euclid Police Department. While Bensi’s dealt with many abuse cases over the years, there’s one that’s impacted him perhaps more than any other.

JB: I became involved in 1989 with a young lady who made allegations and, which turned out to be substantiated, that she had been sexually molested, raped, by a priest over a period of time in her, the family home. And for the, over the course of three years, I was involved with both her and her family as we attempted to prosecute this individual.

RJ: That individual is former priest Martin Louis. He’s currently serving prison time after pleading guilty to rape. And now, as bishops take the new policy to their parishes, Bensi says he’s trying to remain optimistic that the church is serious about changing the way it deals with sex offenders, but says after his experience that’s sometimes hard to do.

JB: I can understand where the bishops were coming from regarding individuals who may have had one offense, in their eyes one offense, and that they are up in years and they don’t simply want to cast them out into society. And now the biggest thing that faces them is the fact that they will not be able to practice their priesthood basically, not be able to say mass in public and do other duties. They should probably consider themselves lucky, because many of them should have been in the penitentiary.

RJ: A woman by the name of Stacie Webb is one reason why Joseph Bensi tries to remain hopeful.

Stacie Webb: I’m excited for this time of healing. I’m excited for the church to heal from within and have it so everybody is so knowledgeable that no matter who you are, if you come and say to somebody, you know, I’ve been abused, that the first phone call is to the police.

RJ: Stacie Webb was the victim in the priest abuse case led by Detective Bensi. Martin Louis sexually molested and raped Webb for two years starting in the second grade. But now, at 29, “victim” is a title she’s ready to do away with. Webb says after the actions taken at the bishop’s conference, she’s more proud than ever to be a Catholic.

SW: Through all this questioning and all the truth coming out within the church, it’s only going to strengthen the church because it’s going to weed out the people that have been negative and have hurt kids. So, I actually see it as a really positive time to be a part of the church because what a greater time to be a part of the church when we’re saying, you know what, you abused somebody and that’s not okay.

RJ: Webb says although she expects change in the church to be a slow process, she’s confident it will be achieved as long as people keep speaking up and the Cleveland Diocese is hearing that message loud and clear. Webb is a member of the 22-person commission examining the policies and procedures of the Cleveland Diocese regarding cases of sexual abuse. Bishop Anthony Pilla named former Cleveland safety director and now, the new Director of Cuyahoga County’s Mental Health Board, Bill Denihan to head the panel. Denihan says this week he will meet with Pilla to discuss the national policy and how to implement it in the Cleveland Diocese.

Bill Denihan: We’ve got to keep the, must keep victims in mind, in terms of insuring that they don’t become another victim of the church, and that they have proper counseling and it all needs to be done to make them as whole as possible from this tragic event that they may have experienced.

RJ: Diocese spokesman Bob Tayek says that another large task ahead of the bishop will be figuring out exactly what to do with priests that have had allegations of sexual abuse against them confirmed since bishops voted on taking them out of parish environments.

Bob Tayek: Bishop Pilla in light of that will be meeting with those priests that are on administrative leave here in the diocese and again, explain to them the application of the charter as it pertains to them. That is a very key point in all of the process.

RJ: Denihan’s commission will also consider what roles offenders should have in the church once removed from public ministry. Denihan says the panel, made up also of law enforcement officials, therapists, and parents of children in parochial schools, will have a complete report of findings and recommendations to the bishop within the next two to three weeks. From there, Denihan says the report will go to parishoners throughout the Cleveland Diocese who will have their own chance to weigh in with their own comments. In Cleveland, Renita Jablonski, 90.3 WCPN News.

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