Catholic community within UAHS and central Ohio react to the Pennsylvania report identifying 300 abusive priests and over 1,000 victims
By Dylan Carlson Sirvent and Katherine Dominek, ’19
In mid-August, a Pennsylvania grand jury report identifying 300 alleged predator priests and more than 1,000 child victims in a seven-decade period rocked the Catholic world. The 1,356-page report said “for many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”
Senior Noel Reed, who was raised Catholic, said when he first heard the news, he didn’t realize the magnitude of the abuse the Pennsylvania report detailed.
“At first, I was like ‘Who knew? Another Catholic priest sexually abused children,’” Reed said. “Which is horrible, because it shouldn’t be something that’s so flippantly heard.”
Attorney generals in several states look set to follow Pennsylvania’s example. In the past few months, the attorney generals of Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York have expressed public interest in calling a grand jury investigation or setting up a task force to look into the records of the state’s Roman Catholic dioceses.
Carol Zamonski, the local coordinator of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, said she would like state attorney general Mike DeWine to empanel a grand jury or conduct an investigation into all the dioceses in Ohio.
If the state were to conduct a widespread investigation like Pennsylvania’s, a county prosecutor would have to launch it, rather than the state attorney general, DeWine’s office said.
“People are focusing on the title of the office, which is somewhat misguided,” said Dan Tierney, DeWine’s spokesperson.
Zamonski isn’t convinced.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if this is an interpretation that provides DeWine with a way to be off the hook for instigating such an investigation,” Zamonski said.
Tierney said the state attorney general’s office is reviewing the report.
The Franklin County prosecuting attorney Ron O’Brien was reached for comment, but his office referred Arlingtonian to a previous Columbus Dispatch article. The article said in 2002 after the Boston priests sex abuse scandal, O’Brien and the Columbus Diocese set up a process in which the diocese would report all future complaints to O’Brien’s office and Franklin County Children Services.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, in the past several years, more than 20 priests have been accused in the Columbus Diocese, and at least 15 accusations were found to be credible.
“I believe the real number to be much much higher based on survivors who have come to support group
meetings but not reported their abuse for one reason or another,” said Zamonski, a survivor of priest sexual abuse during her childhood.
Zamonski said instances of sexual abuse by religious clergy are often underreported. She said victims of priest sexual abuse usually first report the crime to the church.
“The church has the best interest in the information not getting out and in the law establishment not getting the report,” Zamonski said. “So, that’s the first thing, cover up.”
Furthermore, many victims face possible exile from their community, even their family, if they speak out, Zamonski said.
“In small towns where half the town goes to their church, chances are people from their church are the police investigators or the prosecutors or the sheriff,” Zamonski said. “It’s really difficult to get justice done in that situation.”
On July 5, an originally anonymous lawsuit filed by Kevin Heidtman, 30, in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court alleged the late Monsignor Thomas Bennett sexually assaulted Heidtman while he was enrolled at St. Charles Preparatory School.
The school’s principal was reached out for details but said he was not allowed to comment due to the ongoing investigation.
Junior Katie McKenzie, who is part of the St. Andrew youth group, said the new priest at the nearby church, Father T.J. Lehigh, has brought up the topic of priest sexual abuse.
“His preaching has been focused on this and how we can pray for the victims and for the perpetrators,” McKenzie said. “I believe prayer actually has real power.”
Junior Peter Johanni said he too prays for the victims of priest sexual abuse. Johanni, also a member of the St. Andrew youth group, said they talked about the issue in their group chat.
“We talked with our former youth group leader,” Johanni said. “We’re all confused by it—it really shocked and hurt because it betrays our faith in those who have given their lives to the church.”
Zamonski said priests themselves have also been victims of sexual abuse in the past, either when they were altar boys or seminarians.
Deacon Frank Iannarino, who represents the deacons of the Diocese of Columbus, said he recently received an email from a priest in the area who said he himself had been abused by a priest when he was younger.
But Iannarino said he still believes predators can be forgiven by God.
“We’re sinners and Jesus told us that there’s no sin that is unforgivable,” Iannarino said.
Forgiveness is one of the main religious values of Roman Catholicism, but Zamonski said it allows predators to be redeemed all too easily.
“Abusers get forgiven and then people try to forget about it, but this addictive behavior does not go away,” Zamonski said.
Iannarino said that if a priest or bishop is found guilty of sexual impropriety or covering up instances of sexual abuse, they should be banned from the church and face criminal repercussions, even if it means going to jail.
“Sex abuse touches all of us. This is not just an isolated Catholic issue. The Catholic Church, though, has been targeted and I think it’s good,” Iannarino said. “I believe that it will lead the way to transparency.”
Transparency allows for discussion, McKenzie said, which will amount to social change within the church.
“Since this is out in the light now, it forces people to face the fact that there are grievous imperfections in the church that need to be addressed. So those that were trying to cover it up can no longer do so,” McKenzie said. “Social justice is so important to people of our generation. I think we have the power and ability to make changes.”
Similarly, Reed said he believes the culture of power between priests and churchgoers must change.
“Religion should only rule religion,” Reed said. “Priests aren’t the word of God, they share the word of God.”
Background: While covering this story with Katherine, we both interviewed a survivor of sexual abuse perpetrated by a priest when she was a child. For both of us, when the woman told us what had happened to her (we did not know going into the interview), we were left shocked. Especially for such a traumatic event, it is important to realize how to conduct the interview in a manner that is respectful and sensitive of the source. At some moments, Katherine and I asked somewhat awkward questions, but it was a huge learning curve for us, because it is only through experience interviewing people who have undergone significant trauma that one can improve their ability to navigate the interview.