Suspended Priests 'Very Unsettled' By Renewed Investigations

By THOMAS J. SHEERAN, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - The Cleveland Catholic Diocese suspended nine priests, including three pastors and a high-ranking vicar, pending prosecutors' investigation into child sexual abuse allegations.

Most of the newly suspended priests were "very unsettled" by the renewed investigations, diocesan spokesman Robert Tayek said.

None of the cases was recent and some dated back 15 years, Tayek said. The diocese had previously evaluated and treated all the suspended priests and there have been no complaints about them since they returned to work in the diocese.

"Many had been back in ministry for years," Tayek said. Having the allegations resurface "makes their lives very difficult."

Tayek said the priests will remain on administrative leave until the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office has a chance to review the allegations. He said that on Friday, prosecutors subpoenaed the diocese for all material regarding child abuse allegations.

Diocese officials were collecting that material and Tayek did not know when it would be turned over to prosecutors.

Placed on leave were the Rev. Donald Brickman, the diocese's vicar of justice and head of the Church Tribunal; the Rev. Joseph Lieberth, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Stow; the Rev. Russell Banner, pastor of Annunciation Parish in Cleveland; the Rev. Joseph Labbe, pastor of Holy Angels Parish in Bainbridge Township; the Rev. Anthony Rebol, in residence at St. Basil the Great in Brecksville; the Rev. Joseph Romansky, chaplain at St. Augustine Manor Nursing Home; and the Revs. Gary Berthiaume, Joseph Brodnick and Joseph Lang, whose current assignments were unclear.

None of the nine priests could be reached for comment.

During Lieberth's sermon last Sunday, he apologized for the shame that sexually abusive priests have brought on the church, according to parishioners in attendance. He did not refer to his own circumstance.

"He seemed very upset," recalled Evonn Welton of Stow.

Lieberth announced his suspension to a stunned staff at Holy Family School Monday morning, said Susan Jelenic, the school's principal.

"It came as a shock and surprise to all of us," she said. "He was an outstanding pastor and had done so much."

Tayek said the diocese is conducting its own review of the allegations against the priests because it wants "full disclosure of these cases." He would not comment on the past allegations other than to say they all involved sexual abuse with priests and minors.

County Prosecutor Bill Mason said he was surprised by Monday's release of names.

The diocese also released the names of 12 other priests "no longer in active ministry because of allegations in the past of abuse of minors." They included the Rev. Martin Louis, who was sentenced to five years to 25 years in prison on a guilty plea to rape 12 years ago.

Tayek said the decision to suspend the nine also was in line with a statement by Bishop Anthony M. Pilla. It was distributed to parishioners at weekend Masses.

"The issue of sexual abuse is a matter of open and public discussion," Pilla said.

A 10th priest, the Rev. Raymond Bartnikowski, pastor of St. Victor in Richfield, was suspended two weeks ago over newly disclosed abuse allegations.

Last week the Rev. Don A. Rooney, 48, killed himself two days after an allegation dating from 1980 surfaced against him.

Pilla and more than 100 other priests concelebrated Rooney's funeral Mass on Tuesday at St. Anthony of Padua Church in the suburb of Parma, where the overflow crowd spread into the lobby and an adjacent chapel. Pilla told Rooney's family they should trust in the living mercy of God.

The Cleveland diocese has 235 parishes with more than 800,000 Catholics and about 340 priests in Ashland, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Summit and Wayne counties.

A national examination of child sex abuse cases among priests has intensified since January, with the disclosure in Boston that former priest John J. Geoghan was moved from parish to parish after being accused. Since January, several dozen priests out of more than 47,000 nationwide have been suspended or forced to resign.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)