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Bishop Defends Stance On Gray

Oct 8, 2002 | The Toledo Blade

Two weeks after the Toledo Catholic Diocese was accused of covering up sex abuse allegations against a onetime priest, Bishop James Hoffman says he never knew about the charges until years after Dennis Gray left the ministry.

In a rare letter to his priests last week, the bishop defended his handling of the controversial case that has led to seven lawsuits in what has become the largest sex-abuse scandal in diocesan history.

Though the former priest is accused of raping and molesting boys in the 1980s while he was a teacher at Central Catholic High School, the bishop said he was unaware of the accusations until eight years after Mr. Gray left the priesthood in 1987.

"The first that I heard of a claim of sexual abuse was when [one victim] came forward in 1995," the bishop wrote in the Oct. 4 letter.

But public records show that the pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Maumee was informed by police of a child abuse investigation of Mr. Gray in 1985 - two years before he gave up his collar.

As part of the investigation, detectives learned Father Gray had taken boys to a cottage in Michigan with another Toledo priest who had recently been charged with gross indecency between males.

The dispute over when the bishop became aware of problems surrounding Mr. Gray is the latest in a growing controversy involving the diocese's handling of the sexual misconduct crisis now engulfing the American Catholic Church.

Over the past three weeks, seven people have sued Mr. Gray, the diocese, and four Catholic schools in Lucas County Common Pleas Court, saying they were sexually abused by the ex-priest between 1975 and 1987 at his cottage in Michigan's Irish Hills.

The suits claim the diocese engaged in a pattern of "deception and cover-ups" by moving Mr. Gray from parish to parish, and never reporting his alleged crimes to police.

Two diocesan priests have publicly called for Bishop Hoffman and Auxiliary Bishop Robert Donnelly to step down over their handling of local clerical abuse cases, while others have defended their actions.

In addition to the police report, other warning signs had been raised when Mr. Gray was a Toledo priest, including:

An underground newspaper circulated by a student in 1985 at Central Catholic High School - where Father Gray taught religion - accusing the priest of fondling boys at his cottage.

The student, Dan Wagner, now a Toledo policeman, said he stopped distributing the paper after Mr. Gray threatened to stop him from graduating.

Diocesan officials interrogated a Central Catholic sophomore in 1987, asking him about "activities" at the Gray cottage. The student would only admit that the priest allowed alcohol use at the cottage.

A Perrysburg psychiatrist warned two Toledo priests in a 1986 letter that Mr. Gray should receive an immediate psychological evaluation after an 11-year-old altar boy was taken to her for counseling.

The boy, now 28, said Father Gray cornered him in the sacristy of St. Joseph's Church in Maumee in August, 1985, telling the youngster "to submit to punishment," and placing his hand in a "nerve hold."

In the bishop's letter, obtained yesterday by The Blade, he acknowledged that there has been confusion over the diocese's handling of the Gray case but defended his response in a case that has received national attention.

The 70-year-old bishop, who has been in office since 1981, asserted that the first time he was aware of sex-abuse accusations against Mr. Gray was in 1995 and that he reported them to Lucas County Children Services.

The agency did not press the case against Mr. Gray - who was then a dean of students in Toledo public schools - because the alleged victim was by then an adult, records show.

Mr. Gray, 54, who denied the accusations in an interview, was placed on a leave of absence Sept. 16 - the day after The Blade reported the allegations. He has since been transferred to a position overseeing school janitors at night.

In his letter last week, Bishop Hoffman went beyond the Gray case, defending his handling of other clerical abuse complaints.

He said he now understands the victims' "sense of betrayal, their shame, their anger, their loss of innocence, and the depth of their wound."

"We continue to reach out to victims. We continue to provide counseling and medical assistance. ... We continue to pray daily for their healing."

The bishop wrote that since 1981, the diocese has spent $469,584.02 to cover "settlements, pastoral care, and legal fees" in clergy sexual abuse cases involving children. He said the money comes from the diocese's self-insurance plan.

In cases against two other former priests - Leo Welch and Chet Warren - the bishop wrote that he just learned about two of their alleged victims this year.

But serious accusations against Mr. Welch were raised with the diocese as early as 1961, and against Mr. Warren, in 1985.

That same year, Maumee police filed the report on their investigation into Mr. Gray's alleged abuse of the St. Joseph's altar boy. What's unclear is whether the pastor, the Rev. Thomas Wehinger, notified diocesan officials of the police findings.

Police Detective Douglas Brainard wrote that during his investigation, he learned that Father Gray and a fellow priest "had taken kids to a cottage in Michigan."

Though Mr. Gray has denied sexually molesting youngsters, the diocese has said he confessed to abuse in 1995, while conducting its own investigation.

"He has admitted to us he is guilty of child abuse," said a letter from the Rev. Ray Shepard, vicar of priests, to a victim.

The vicar went on to write that Mr. Gray "is remorseful and wishes to apologize. He has undergone two different courses of psychotherapy treatment since he left the priesthood."

In the last several weeks, Auxiliary Bishop Donnelly has been criticized for giving Mr. Gray a positive reference when the ex-priest applied for a job in 1987 with the Lucas County Adult Probation Department.

In a separate letter to the priests last week, Bishop Donnelly said "there was no allegation of sexual abuse" at the time and that Mr. Gray "was a priest in good standing" when he left.

Bishop Hoffman had no comment about the letter he sent to 200 priests on Friday.

"That letter was a private correspondence between the bishop and his priests," Chancellor Michael Billian said yesterday, adding that the bishop will be writing an open letter to the diocese soon.

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