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Church's Response Criticized

May 10, 2002 | Beacon Journal Helen Zelsky-Gahera was hoping for healing when she wrote to Bishop Anthony M. Pilla detailing her account of sex abuse by a priest 47 years ago.

The Doylestown woman was very optimistic that help was on the way when she found a response from the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland in her mailbox less than a week later.

Then she read the salutation: ``Dear Maureen.'' Her hope was dashed.

``Once I saw that, the rest of the letter didn't matter,'' said Zelsky-Gahera. ``They claim they read my letter carefully, but they couldn't get my name right. I figure it was a form letter that they send to anyone who has a complaint, and it says to me, `Let's get rid of this person.' ''

Since a clergy scandal began rocking the Roman Catholic Church in January, dioceses throughout the country have been receiving complaints of abuse by priests; many of the allegations involve incidents dating back decades.

Following legal advice, officials of the Cleveland Diocese -- which includes Summit and Wayne counties -- are not talking to the news media about how they deal with such complaints.

But diocesan spokesman Robert Tayek said the incorrect name in the salutation was a mistake made by a secretary who apologized for the error.

The letter, dated April 9, informed Zelsky-Gahera that Pilla had received and carefully read her letter of April 3. It also said that Pilla and the Rev. John F. Murphy, the diocese secretary and vicar for clergy and religious, were sorry to hear of her experience. It thanked her for bringing the information to their attention and ended, ``May God bless you in your life and bring you peace in your heart.'' It was signed by Murphy.

Tayek said it definitely was not a form letter. ``We were responding to a case that was very specific to the letter writer,'' he said. ``All letters are immediately turned over to the prosecutor because we're operating under a subpoena.''

Last month, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor subpoenaed all diocesan documents related to child sex-abuse allegations. The diocese is complying with the court order by turning over all information to the prosecutor, including the letter from Zelsky-Gahera, Tayek said.

Prayer service held

Tayek said Pilla's concern for the victims of sex abuse was expressed on Sunday in a prayer service at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Cleveland. Pilla offered a prayer of comfort, healing and hope for the victims.

Zelsky-Gahera said she would have felt better if the diocese had sent an invitation to those who had informed the diocese that they were victims. ``Was it too much trouble to send a little piece of paper, saying, `Come, we want to pray for you?' At least that would have been a sign that they actually care about us,'' Zelsky-Gahera said.

The clergy scandal has been fueled by reports that some priests accused of abusing children were shuffled from parish to parish, giving them the opportunity to abuse more children.

That anger is personal for Zelsky-Gahera and for John Gulling of Canal Fulton, who recently informed the Diocese of Youngstown -- which includes Stark County -- that he had been abused as a child at the St. Paul parish school in North Canton by then-priest Robert Burns, who was imprisoned years later for molesting a boy in New Hampshire.

Stark man also unhappy

Neither Zelsky-Gahera nor Gulling is satisfied with the diocesan responses to their disclosures.

Gulling, who went public with his story last week, has yet to hear from the Youngstown diocesan office, although he received a phone call from the Rev. James Clarke, pastor of St. Paul.

Clarke said in recent weeks that he has received three other complaints of sex abuse by Burns. Two were from anonymous callers; another caller identified himself.

``I made an announcement (during Mass), encouraging victims and their families to come forward because I think that's what needs to happen,'' Clarke said. ``Victims and families need to be able to come forward and say they have been physically, mentally and spiritually wounded. Obviously, we can't take the suffering away, but we can help them carry it.''

Gulling believes that Clarke is sincere, but he questions the sincerity of the church hierarchy.

``One of the really sad things is, the first response I got was from a local (non-Catholic) church in town, offering to pay for counseling,'' said the 38-year-old Gulling, ``and I got no response at all from the diocese office.''

Diocese's response

The Rev. Robert Siffrin, vicar general for the Youngstown Diocese, said diocesan officials have reviewed the ``handful of complaints'' they have received in recent months and have asked local pastors to make themselves available to talk to victims.

``Most people know the parish priest and will be more comfortable talking with him,'' Siffrin said. ``Bishop (Thomas) Tobin and other diocesan officials are more than willing to meet with anyone who wants to talk, and we have made that clear to the parish priests.''

The goal, Siffrin said, is to meet the pastoral needs of the victims.

Victim's complaint

But Gulling is not convinced. ``They don't want to talk about the cases that they have, whether they're in litigation or not,'' Gulling said. ``I am disturbed by the way things are being handled at the top levels in the church. I don't think they understand how much of a price I have paid and my family has paid.''

Gulling said it is irresponsible for the diocese not to acknowledge his plight. ``It almost upsets me more than the guy who did it because those in power should have fostered an atmosphere that made it possible to catch these guys,'' he said. ``But when they did get caught, they just shuffled them off. The people running the show can change things. They need to acknowledge what they've done, and they should offer some kind of compensation.''

Gulling said he was molested when he went to Burns for confession at age 11. Burns spent two years at St. Paul before being assigned to the faculty at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Louisville in 1977. In 1979, apparently after an allegation of abuse surfaced, Burns was immediately removed from the high school. That same year, he was assigned as an associate pastor at St. Rose in Girard in Trumbull County.

Clarke said two of the victims who contacted him recently said they had told St. Paul's pastor in the 1970s of the abuse. However, no records indicate that the pastor acted on that information or passed it on to the diocesan office, Clarke said.

When allegations of abuse were reported at St. Rose in 1981, Burns was sent to the Boston area for treatment and was subsequently hired by the Archdiocese of Boston.

Priest's locale unknown

Zelsky-Gahera wishes she knew what happened to the Rev. George Hovanec, the priest who she says molested her when she was in the seventh grade at SS. Cyril and Methodious parish school in Barberton.

A parish jubilee booklet published about that time lists Hovanec as a priest there. The Akron Beacon Journal has not been able to locate him.

``It's something you can never forget,'' said the 60-year-old Zelsky-Gahera. ``It's always with you. I can still remember what I was wearing that day -- a red, green and yellow plaid skirt that my grandmother had made for me. It was gathered all around. And a white blouse.

``I can still see myself, with my hand on the railing, climbing the steps to go back to my classroom. It happened on the seventh step.''

Zelsky-Gahera said she was returning to her class from the restroom when the priest ``appeared out of nowhere, in his priestly attire,'' walked in front of her and touched and patted her in a ``very sexually inappropriate way.'' Then he invited her to the basement of the rectory to count the Sunday envelopes.

She can't remember if she replied, but she recalls running up the stairs as fast as she could and vowing never to go to the restroom alone again.

Victim kept quiet

Being the daughter of Polish immigrants who held nuns and priests in awe, Zelsky-Gahera said she was too embarrassed to tell anyone what had happened and feared that no one would believe her.

Now, she wants to know what happened to the priest and if he molested other children. She plans to write another letter to the diocese requesting that information.

``I've been living with this for 47 years,'' she said. ``When I sat down and wrote to the diocese, it was very tough -- I was exposing myself, my inner being, and they didn't even bother to say they were going to pray for me, which is a standard thing to do. Now, I'm angry, and I want answers. I want to know what happened to this man, after he left SS. Cyril and Methodious. I pray that nobody else was affected because of my silence. Sometimes silence isn't golden.''

Helen Zelsky-Gahera was hoping for healing when she wrote to Bishop Anthony M. Pilla detailing her account of sex abuse by a priest 47 years ago.

The Doylestown woman was very optimistic that help was on the way when she found a response from the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland in her mailbox less than a week later.

Then she read the salutation: ``Dear Maureen.'' Her hope was dashed.

``Once I saw that, the rest of the letter didn't matter,'' said Zelsky-Gahera. ``They claim they read my letter carefully, but they couldn't get my name right. I figure it was a form letter that they send to anyone who has a complaint, and it says to me, `Let's get rid of this person.' ''

Since a clergy scandal began rocking the Roman Catholic Church in January, dioceses throughout the country have been receiving complaints of abuse by priests; many of the allegations involve incidents dating back decades.

Following legal advice, officials of the Cleveland Diocese -- which includes Summit and Wayne counties -- are not talking to the news media about how they deal with such complaints.

But diocesan spokesman Robert Tayek said the incorrect name in the salutation was a mistake made by a secretary who apologized for the error.

The letter, dated April 9, informed Zelsky-Gahera that Pilla had received and carefully read her letter of April 3. It also said that Pilla and the Rev. John F. Murphy, the diocese secretary and vicar for clergy and religious, were sorry to hear of her experience. It thanked her for bringing the information to their attention and ended, ``May God bless you in your life and bring you peace in your heart.'' It was signed by Murphy.

Tayek said it definitely was not a form letter. ``We were responding to a case that was very specific to the letter writer,'' he said. ``All letters are immediately turned over to the prosecutor because we're operating under a subpoena.''

Last month, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor subpoenaed all diocesan documents related to child sex-abuse allegations. The diocese is complying with the court order by turning over all information to the prosecutor, including the letter from Zelsky-Gahera, Tayek said.

Prayer service held

Tayek said Pilla's concern for the victims of sex abuse was expressed on Sunday in a prayer service at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Cleveland. Pilla offered a prayer of comfort, healing and hope for the victims.

Zelsky-Gahera said she would have felt better if the diocese had sent an invitation to those who had informed the diocese that they were victims. ``Was it too much trouble to send a little piece of paper, saying, `Come, we want to pray for you?' At least that would have been a sign that they actually care about us,'' Zelsky-Gahera said.

The clergy scandal has been fueled by reports that some priests accused of abusing children were shuffled from parish to parish, giving them the opportunity to abuse more children.

That anger is personal for Zelsky-Gahera and for John Gulling of Canal Fulton, who recently informed the Diocese of Youngstown -- which includes Stark County -- that he had been abused as a child at the St. Paul parish school in North Canton by then-priest Robert Burns, who was imprisoned years later for molesting a boy in New Hampshire.

Stark man also unhappy

Neither Zelsky-Gahera nor Gulling is satisfied with the diocesan responses to their disclosures.

Gulling, who went public with his story last week, has yet to hear from the Youngstown diocesan office, although he received a phone call from the Rev. James Clarke, pastor of St. Paul.

Clarke said in recent weeks that he has received three other complaints of sex abuse by Burns. Two were from anonymous callers; another caller identified himself.

``I made an announcement (during Mass), encouraging victims and their families to come forward because I think that's what needs to happen,'' Clarke said. ``Victims and families need to be able to come forward and say they have been physically, mentally and spiritually wounded. Obviously, we can't take the suffering away, but we can help them carry it.''

Gulling believes that Clarke is sincere, but he questions the sincerity of the church hierarchy.

``One of the really sad things is, the first response I got was from a local (non-Catholic) church in town, offering to pay for counseling,'' said the 38-year-old Gulling, ``and I got no response at all from the diocese office.''

Diocese's response

The Rev. Robert Siffrin, vicar general for the Youngstown Diocese, said diocesan officials have reviewed the ``handful of complaints'' they have received in recent months and have asked local pastors to make themselves available to talk to victims.

``Most people know the parish priest and will be more comfortable talking with him,'' Siffrin said. ``Bishop (Thomas) Tobin and other diocesan officials are more than willing to meet with anyone who wants to talk, and we have made that clear to the parish priests.''

The goal, Siffrin said, is to meet the pastoral needs of the victims.

Victim's complaint

But Gulling is not convinced. ``They don't want to talk about the cases that they have, whether they're in litigation or not,'' Gulling said. ``I am disturbed by the way things are being handled at the top levels in the church. I don't think they understand how much of a price I have paid and my family has paid.''

Gulling said it is irresponsible for the diocese not to acknowledge his plight. ``It almost upsets me more than the guy who did it because those in power should have fostered an atmosphere that made it possible to catch these guys,'' he said. ``But when they did get caught, they just shuffled them off. The people running the show can change things. They need to acknowledge what they've done, and they should offer some kind of compensation.''

Gulling said he was molested when he went to Burns for confession at age 11. Burns spent two years at St. Paul before being assigned to the faculty at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Louisville in 1977. In 1979, apparently after an allegation of abuse surfaced, Burns was immediately removed from the high school. That same year, he was assigned as an associate pastor at St. Rose in Girard in Trumbull County.

Clarke said two of the victims who contacted him recently said they had told St. Paul's pastor in the 1970s of the abuse. However, no records indicate that the pastor acted on that information or passed it on to the diocesan office, Clarke said.

When allegations of abuse were reported at St. Rose in 1981, Burns was sent to the Boston area for treatment and was subsequently hired by the Archdiocese of Boston.

Priest's locale unknown

Zelsky-Gahera wishes she knew what happened to the Rev. George Hovanec, the priest who she says molested her when she was in the seventh grade at SS. Cyril and Methodious parish school in Barberton.

A parish jubilee booklet published about that time lists Hovanec as a priest there. The Akron Beacon Journal has not been able to locate him.

``It's something you can never forget,'' said the 60-year-old Zelsky-Gahera. ``It's always with you. I can still remember what I was wearing that day -- a red, green and yellow plaid skirt that my grandmother had made for me. It was gathered all around. And a white blouse.

``I can still see myself, with my hand on the railing, climbing the steps to go back to my classroom. It happened on the seventh step.''

Zelsky-Gahera said she was returning to her class from the restroom when the priest ``appeared out of nowhere, in his priestly attire,'' walked in front of her and touched and patted her in a ``very sexually inappropriate way.'' Then he invited her to the basement of the rectory to count the Sunday envelopes.

She can't remember if she replied, but she recalls running up the stairs as fast as she could and vowing never to go to the restroom alone again.

Victim kept quiet

Being the daughter of Polish immigrants who held nuns and priests in awe, Zelsky-Gahera said she was too embarrassed to tell anyone what had happened and feared that no one would believe her.

Now, she wants to know what happened to the priest and if he molested other children. She plans to write another letter to the diocese requesting that information.

``I've been living with this for 47 years,'' she said. ``When I sat down and wrote to the diocese, it was very tough -- I was exposing myself, my inner being, and they didn't even bother to say they were going to pray for me, which is a standard thing to do. Now, I'm angry, and I want answers. I want to know what happened to this man, after he left SS. Cyril and Methodious. I pray that nobody else was affected because of my silence. Sometimes silence isn't golden.''

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