The pastor of the second-largest parish in Summit County was among nine priests placed on administrative leave yesterday because of allegations of sexual abuse of minors.
The Rev. Joseph J. Lieberth, 60, of Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Stow, voluntarily withdrew from public ministry at the request of Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, after the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office issued a subpoena requesting all documentation of allegations of child abuse by clergy in the diocese.
The cases against all nine priests placed on leave yesterday were old and some dated back 15 years, said Robert Tayek, spokesman for the Diocese of Cleveland, which includes Summit, Medina and Wayne counties.
He said the diocese had previously evaluated and treated all the suspended priests and that there have been no complaints about them since they returned to work.
“To our knowledge, they have been successfully performing their ministries without incident,” the diocese said in a statement.
Tayek said the priests will remain on administrative leave until the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office has a chance to review the allegations.
In the Diocese of Youngstown, which includes Stark and Portage counties, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin is reviewing clergy files for any allegations of abuse that have not been addressed.
Because the Youngstown diocesan policy calls for the immediate removal of any clergy accused of abuse, it is doubtful that Tobin will find any allegations, spokesman Nancy Yuhasz said yesterday.
In a letter yesterday to the staff at the nearly 10,000-member Stow parish, Lieberth explained that almost 16 years ago, he was involved in an isolated incident with a 17-year-old boy. He stated that the incident was reported to the diocese and that in accordance with diocesan policy, he underwent physical and psychological assessments and extended counseling.
“I also apologized to the young man both verbally and in writing,” Lieberth wrote. “I also cooperated with his parents, apologized to them for violating their confidence and received their forgiveness.
“Several years later, I underwent another extended assessment, and at that time I was able to be assigned as the associate pastor of Holy Family.”
Lieberth came to Holy Family in 1992 as an associate pastor and became pastor in 1999.
From 1988 to 1992, he served as co-chaplain at University Hospitals in Cleveland. Before that, he spent 10 years as director of the permanent deacons program. His first two assignments as associate pastor were at St. Peter in Lorain and St. Martin of Tours in Maple Heights, from 1973 to 1978 and 1968 to 1973, respectively.
Lieberth’s younger brother, David, who recently was named chief of staff and deputy mayor for administration in Akron, said he does not expect his brother to comment beyond what he wrote in the letter.
David Lieberth said he first learned of the incident involving his brother on Saturday after his brother had been summoned to the bishop’s office with the other eight priests.
“Our family has approached this with great sadness,” David Lieberth said. “Who would not abhor an act of abuse upon a person under the age of 18? But we support him, understanding the context. I view it as an isolated incident in the context of his ministry, in which he has served with honor and dignity but for one incident.”
The diocese said the decision to suspend the nine priests was in line with a statement by Bishop Pilla, distributed to parishioners at weekend Masses.
“The issue of sexual abuse is a matter of open and public discussion,” Pilla said. “While this is often painful, it allows us to address the issue more directly. In this way, all of us can become more alert to the dangers, more protective of potential victims, more pastorally responsive to those who have been victims of abuse and more effective in dealing with those responsible for the abuse of minors.”
That message Sunday echoed in Catholic churches throughout the diocese, including Holy Family, where Lieberth apologized for the shame some priests have brought upon the church.
“He apologized for what we all must be going through, as far as people questioning our church and the Catholic Church in general,” said Kris Keller, who attended Mass on Sunday and has a 5-year-old daughter enrolled at Holy Family School. “And he encouraged us to hold strong to our faith in Christ and leave it at that.”
Keller described Lieberth’s mood as serious during the homily.
“You could have heard a pin drop when he was talking,” she said. “Everybody has always had a great deal of respect for him.”
Holy Family School Principal Susan M. Jelenic said she had no knowledge of the incident involving Lieberth before yesterday and still knew no details.
“It was a total surprise to the whole school community,” Jelenic said.
A sealed letter was sent home with all 740 students at the school yesterday to inform parents that Lieberth was no longer at the parish. Later this week, Jelenic said a crisis intervention team will be brought to the school to meet with the children and their parents and to deal with any problems they might have.
Stow Mayor Lee A. Schaffer sends her children to Holy Family School, and as mayor she has worked extensively with Lieberth on many issues. She too was stunned by the news.
“I have never known him to do anything inappropriate… ” she said. “As the saga develops in the Catholic Church, they’ll step up to the plate and do the right thing, as they have here.”
The Rev. Martin J. Amos, auxiliary bishop to the diocese in Akron, expressed the same shock that Holy Family parishioners were experiencing.
Amos, who was in the same seminary graduating class with Lieberth, learned of his leave and the allegation during a morning meeting with Pilla and other diocesan officials.
“He (Lieberth) is very conscientious, and he obviously faced up to what he had done,” Amos said. “On a personal level, it’s going to take some time to sort through this and realize all the ramifications of it.”
Amos said the Rev. Thomas Dragga, the rector at Borromeo Seminary College in Wickliffe, will temporarily assume duties as pastor at Holy Family.
A national examination of child sexual abuse cases among priests in the Roman Catholic Church has intensified since January, with the disclosure in Boston that former priest John J. Geoghan was moved from parish to parish after being accused of sexually abusing children. Several dozen priests out of more than 47,000 nationwide have been suspended or forced to resign.
In the Cleveland diocese, which has 235 parishes with more than 800,000 Catholics and about 340 priests, 10 priests now have been suspended.
Two weeks ago, the Rev. Raymond Bartnikowski of St. Victor in Richfield, was put on leave after a 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.
Yesterday, 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.”