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Accused Priest Who Killed Self Is Remembered at Mass

Funeral: Bishop, criticized for doing too little to safeguard children, officiates a day after suspending 9 priests.

April 10, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARMA, Ohio — A day after he suspended nine more clergymen in a growing child molestation investigation in the Cleveland diocese, Bishop Anthony Pilla said the funeral Mass Tuesday for an accused priest who killed himself last week.

Pilla, face grim, rose to address those gathered to bury Father Donald A. Rooney.

In front of him was a church so full that parishioners stood several deep in the back. To his right, more than 100 fellow Roman Catholic priests dressed in vestments formed a sea of white in the sanctuary of St. Anthony of Padua, where Rooney last served.

Pilla spoke first to the mother who lost her 48-year-old son to suicide last week amid accusations that he had molested a little girl at his first parish more than 20 years ago.

"No one here today understands what you are going through today," Pilla said to Rooney's mother, Mary Lou Vasitas. "Despite all the painful circumstances, Don was your son and you loved him very much. And you have many wonderful memories of your life with Don and I know that you have been told many, many good things about Don's service. I urge you to hold on to that life and cherish those memories and leave the rest to a merciful God."

Pilla has been under heavy criticism in recent weeks for doing too little to protect children in the diocese from predatory priests. Before the charge against Rooney was made last week, Pilla harshly reviewed his past response to such charges and vowed to enforce a more open policy.

It was in this highly sensitive climate that a woman came forward to tell church officials that Rooney molested her when she was a child and he was assigned to the Sacred Heart parish in Wadsworth, Ohio. The week before, Pilla suspended a 40-year veteran priest on the basis of a single complaint--the first such suspension in Cleveland since the sexual abuse scandal broke nationally.

The fallout here continues.

Local prosecutors issued a grand jury subpoena Friday requiring the diocese to turn over all records related to child abuse allegations. Church officials acknowledged the subpoena expedited Pilla's suspension of nine more active priests, including the diocese's vicar of justice. The men, church officials said, had all been evaluated and treated at the time the now years-old allegations were made and then returned to the ministry. They have all been asked to leave church housing pending a criminal investigation.

Pilla also released the names of 12 former or retired priests who had histories of child molestation.

Still, the suicide of a priest shocked nearly everyone in this heavily Catholic community. A handful of priests accused of sexual abuse of children have killed themselves in the last decade, but Rooney's suicide was the first since the child molestation scandal in the U.S. Catholic Church became national news.

Pilla acknowledged at the funeral Mass Tuesday that the circumstances of Rooney's death have been difficult for him to bear.

"Brothers and sisters in Christ," he said, "I think you understand just how painful this time has been for me."

Rooney, a lifelong Cleveland resident who was ordained in 1979, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after being asked to meet with Pilla on Wednesday morning for an undisclosed reason. He never showed up and was found the next day in his car, a bullet in his head. Since his death, church officials have acknowledged more people have leveled accusations against him.

Pilla announced the day Rooney's body was found that he would be given a full Catholic burial. Shortly after, Pilla said he would officiate at the funeral Mass.

The church, which long denied funerals to suicide victims, more recently has left such decisions up to the discretion of bishops who are asked to consider whether the person who took his or her own life was under severe mental stress or excessive fear of hardship or suffering.

Pilla spoke Tuesday of how Rooney's decision to end his own life affected others. "We feel remorse. We feel terrible pain. We even feel guilty and maybe we look for someone to blame and maybe we blame ourselves," Pilla said as many in attendance wept.

"What can I offer to any of you as we gather at this time?" he asked. "Words seem so weak and maybe even profane in the midst of the death of Father Don Rooney. Only silence seems to be called for and yet we human beings . . . need and . . . seek meaning in the face of life's tragic circumstances and experiences."

In recent letters to Cleveland's Catholics, Pilla called sexual abuse of children a "terrible tragedy."

But he did not speak directly Tuesday about the accusations.

"We can never know what takes place in the heart of another human being. . . ," he said. "We cannot conclude and we should not conclude that his life and death had no meaning or were rejected by God. What we must do is to pray and hope that God's healing love touched Father Rooney."

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