Sex Abuse Allegations Filed Against Eastern-Rite Catholic Diocese

By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - Three men filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Byzantine Catholic Diocese of Parma, saying they were repeatedly abused by a priest in the late 1970s and the diocese covered it up.

A Florida businessman said he witnessed the priest raping a child.

The lawsuit appears to be the first sex abuse suit against the Byzantine order, said the Rev. Nicholas Rachford, spokesman for the diocese, which has 12,400 followers in 12 Midwestern states.

The lawsuit charges the diocese with negligence and conspiracy to cover up abuse of minors by the Rev. John Rebovich, an Eastern Rite priest who has been on administrative leave since 1990 when the church first learned of the alleged abuse, Rachford said.

"He is not allowed to represent himself as a priest and he is not allowed to carry out any priestly functions," Rachford said.

While church leaders "did not see fit to put Fr. Rebovich back in ministry," it does not imply the diocese believes he was guilty, he said.

A county prosecutor investigated the allegations in the 1990s but determined that the statute of limitations had expired, Rachford said.

Rachford said he could not comment about the lawsuit because he had not seen it. The diocese refused to say where Rebovich lives. There is no phone listing for him in the Cleveland area.

The church "ratified the priests' conduct by failing to report it" to law enforcement officials or parishioners, according to the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified punitive damages. It was filed on behalf of Joseph Klimko of Garfield and two other anonymous plaintiffs.

Rebovich regularly gathered teen-age boys at the rectory and engaged in sexual activity, said William Crosby, an attorney for the three plaintiffs. Several of the boys were raped, he said.

Klimko said Wednesday that Rebovich paid him and other teen-age boys hundreds of dollars to defecate in a chalice while he watched or offered to perform sexual acts on them.

"It was a humiliation type of thing," Klimko said. Rebovich would "take you out to dinner, buy you booze," to befriend young boys, he said.

"All he was doing was being a pedophile. It was for a very sinister purpose," he said.

Klimco, 39, said he never reported the alleged abuse because he didn't think anyone would believe him. He said he is making his claim now because the national discussion of church sex abuse has made him realize the importance of going public.

In 1992, the diocese issued a policy for responding to sex abuse allegations, Rachford said.

Eastern Rite Catholics trace their origins to the earliest days of Christianity. They accept the authority of the pope but follow many of their own rituals and, in some countries, ordain married men.

There are 17 Eastern Rite dioceses in the United States, compared to 178 Roman, or mainstream, dioceses. The policy that U.S. bishops approved Friday in Dallas on disciplining abusive priests covers both.

Under the plan, the bishop must consult with an advisory board comprised mainly of lay people to review any abuse allegation.

If the claim is deemed credible, the bishop would then be required to remove the priest from any work connected to the church -- from teaching in a parochial school to serving in a Catholic soup kitchen. The bishop could also go one step further and begin the lengthy process of ousting the priest from the priesthood.

Crosby said he plans to file another sexual abuse suit next week -- this time against a Catholic parish in Lorain. Crosby said a priest there molested several Hispanic teen-agers who will be named as plaintiffs in the case.

The lawsuits are being filed in part to make sure that the church lives up to the promises made in Dallas to publicly disclose allegations of abuse and to offer support and counseling to victims, Crosby said.

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