Allegations a former Allen County woman made of a molestation 50 years ago by a Catholic priest are “credible,” the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend said Sunday.
Michele Bennett, who now lives in Battle Creek, Mich., first disclosed in 1998 and again this past July that Father William Ehrman molested her nearly 50 years ago while she was a student at St. John the Baptist School in New Haven. Ehrman died in 1983.
The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend issued a prepared statement Sunday stating that an internal investigation found Bennett’s allegations “appear credible under diocesan guidelines.”
The diocese is unable to say with certainty that Ehrman did molest Bennett because of the time that has passed and Ehrman’s death, said Christine Bonahoom-Nix, spokeswoman for the Catholic Communications office.
“What it means is that what they’ve determined through the investigation is that her claims seem credible,” Bonahoom-Nix said.
Additional details about the investigation or its findings were not available Sunday night.
Bennett said the diocese’s acknowledgment of her claims will provide her with closure.
“I’m grateful it’s turned out the way it has,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing for us. This was something I had to do to help myself put it all behind me.”
Bennett said she had considered asking the diocese for monetary compensation, but that Sunday’s announcement, coupled with the presence of Bishop John D’Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend at St. John the Baptist’s weekend Masses, is all she needs.
“I need my spirit intact and my soul intact and money can’t buy that,” she said.
Bennett believes the abuse began when she was 10 or 11 years old and continued for several years. She said Ehrman would invite her to the rectory and touch her between her legs and on her breasts.
Bennett said she has recently been in contact with other women who told her they too were abused by Ehrman as students at St. John the Baptist School.
“I really didn’t know if there was anyone else,” she said. “It was just not something at that time that you talked about.”
D’Arcy left Sunday for the annual meeting of the United States Conference on Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., and could not be reached for comment. D’Arcy spent Saturday and Sunday in New Haven, attending three parish Masses at St. John the Baptist, the Catholic Communications office said.
D’Arcy acknowledged the credibility of Bennett’s claims during those Masses and expressed his and the diocese’s sorrow, the office said. He also asked anyone else with allegations of abuse against Ehrman to contact diocesan Vicar General Father Robert Schulte.
D’Arcy has been outspoken in regard to combating sexual abuse by Catholic priests. As an auxiliary bishop in Boston in 1984, he wrote a letter expressing his concerns about then-priest John Geoghan. Geoghan has since been defrocked and is accused of molesting more than 130 boys over 30 years.
Bennett commended D’Arcy for speaking out at the New Haven Masses.
“I believe he had a lot of courage to do that and I’m proud of him,” she said. “I feel like they’re taking ownership of what did happen. He’s saying they did investigate it and found it to be true.”
The Catholic Communications office said the diocese is ready to offer spiritual or pastoral assistance to anyone who presents credible allegations of abuse. During the Saturday and Sunday Masses, D’Arcy asked for prayers for the healing of those abused and for the forgiveness of those who hurt children, the office said.
Bennett said her faith has remained strong during the past 50 years and that she never considered leaving the Catholic Church. She also acknowledged that some people will choose not to believe the claims against Ehrman.
“I realize some people say he’s a good man and he probably was,” she said. “I’m sure his life wasn’t totally worthless, but there was this other side of him.”
A diocesan panel formed to investigate claims of sexual abuse will meet Dec. 9 for the first time. It was not clear Sunday night whether the diocese’s investigation of Bennett’s allegations would be discussed.