OH--Victims want pastor disciplined for helping sex offender
For immediate release: Thursday, June 4
For more information: David Clohessy of St. Louis, Director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (314 566 9790, firstname.lastname@example.org), Barbara Dorris (314-503-0003 cell, bdorris@SNAPnetwork.org), Barbara Blaine (312-399-4747, email@example.com)
Church staff help sex offender
Victims denounce their letters
Bishop should reprimand pastor, group says
SNAP: “He should visit parish & educate his flock”
At least ten staff, volunteers or members of a Cleveland Catholic church wrote a judge seeking a shorter prison term for a convicted child sex offender who brandished a gun at a police officer. A support group for clergy sex abuse victims is urging Cleveland’s top Catholic official to visit the parish and discipline the pastor.
The controversy stems from a March guilty plea on child sex charges by Steve Bittel, an active parishioner at St. Barnabas church in Northfield. An investigation revealed that most of the 67 videos found on Bittel's computer featured children between 3 and 16 years old. Of the 67 files found, one of the files downloaded to Bittel's IP address is described in court records as a five-minute video of a "slightly pubescent girl" undressing and performing sex acts on herself, according to Stow Municipal Court records.
More than 25 of Bittel’s relatives, friends and fellow Catholics wrote to Judge Richard Reinbold urging leniency for him before his sentencing. Among them were ten individuals with ties to St. Barnabas parish, including its pastor.
Leaders of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, are asking Bishop Richard Lennon to go to the church this weekend, reprimand the pastor and “tell your flock that it’s wrong, reckless and hurtful to help a predator get back out on the streets sooner.”
In a letter to Lennon, SNAP says he has “a duty to put the safety of innocent kids above the wishes of misguided adults and to make sure that church members and staff do so too.”
“School and church officials should always put the safety of the innocent above the preferences of their friends. Helping sex offenders get shorter sentences is hurtful and irresponsible,” said Judy Jones of SNAP.
“When officials write letters urging lighter punishments for sex offenders, they are being selfish and short-sighted and they rub even more salt into the already deep and usually still fresh wounds of victims and their loved ones,” said Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, SNAP’s outreach director. “And it’s not enough for Lennon or another church official to say ‘We’re sorry.’ The only way to prevent these misdeeds in the future is for Lennon to punish the pastor.”
Those writing to the judge on Bittel’s behalf include St. Barnabas pastor Fr. Ralph Wiatrowski and others associated with the parish: James Vinson, John Marion, Nancy Zajac, Toni Zobel, Luella Merecki, Bob and Annette Fischer, and Thomas and Kathleen Raffay.
Bittel was also the president of the the Nordonia Hills school board. The board’s most recent president, James Virost, also supported Bittel. Last week, Virost resigned over the matter.
“We hope that anyone who may have seen, suspected or suffered Bittel’s crimes will call law enforcement. And we hope that those who care about kids will keep pressuring Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon to publicly and harshly discipline Fr. Wiatrowski for his irresponsible actions in this case.
Judge Reinbold sentenced Bittel to 14 years in prison and must register as a Tier II sex offender.
Bittel also taught Sunday school to preschoolers and religion classes to school-aged students at St. Barnabas. He also volunteered to help craft budgets for the church and school.
A copy of SNAP;’s letter, sent today by fax and email, is below:
Dear Bishop Lennon:
We write to you with grave concern. The lives of parents, parishioners and, most importantly, the lives of children at St. Barnabas were dramatically changed on September 4, 2014.
As you may recall, St. Barnabas School was put on "lockdown" because of the actions of Mr. Steven Bittel, an active volunteer at both the parish and school. Mr. Bittell, a now convicted sexual offender, is serving a 14 year sentence for his crimes, a sentence that could have been up to 31 years, had letters from church members and staff seeking for leniency not been submitted in a court of law on his behalf.
There exists a heavy, dark cloud at St. Barnabas due to the unfortunate letters that Fr. Ralph Wiatrowski and others wrote asking for a light sentence for Mr. Bittell. Not only did Fr. Wiatrowski write a letter, he also appeared in court to personally speak about Mr. Bittell.
Mr. Bittel admitted to, and was convicted of, numerous child pornography related charges, some of which include illegal use of a child in nudity, and one count of pandering obscenity involving a child. Records say that the files found on Mr. Bittel’s computer were of children between the ages of 3-16 being exploited and raped. According to court documents, one of the files downloaded to Mr. Bittel's IP address is described as a five-minute video of a "slightly pubescent girl" undressing and performing sex acts on herself.
In his letter to the judge, Fr. Wiatrowski actually said that "no incarceration was warranted" for Mr. Bittell. This is stunningly reckless. We’ve heard from several outraged parishioners who feel betrayed by this callous plea. Fr. Wiatrowski asked for no jail time for a man who himself admitted to, and was convicted of, contributing to the rape and exploitation of children. Fr. Wiatrowski asked for no jail time for an admitted sexual offender who had direct involvement with countless children at St. Barnabas.
Vague public statements by lower level Cleveland Diocese claiming that “the church does not tolerate sexual abuse of children” are inadequate. They ring hollow, Bishop Lennon, while you silently tolerate this irresponsible behavior – behavior that could put kids at risk – by your staff and your flock.
Fr. Wiatrowski must be publicly punished for trying to keep a convicted predator walking free, and for siding with a guilty friend over innocent children. Pope Francis has said that, "We don't want to take a step back dealing with this problem and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, I think we must be even stronger! You don't play around with the lives of children." A strong and clear message must be sent to children that the actions of Fr. Wiatrowski and others at St. Barnabas were incomprehensible and will not be tolerated.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Executive Director, SNAP
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
7234 Arsenal Street
St. Louis MO 63143
314 566 9790, firstname.lastname@example.org
Outreach Director, SNAP
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
6245 Westminster Place
Saint Louis, MO 63130
314 503 0003
50 State AG Call for Grand Jury
Any investigation must be:
- independent of and separate from the church
- must have subpoena powers and ability to compel testimony under oath
Anything short of these criteria is a sham and whitewash.
In addition, write letters to the editor, make phone calls to politicians as they can apply pressure to keep them responsive to our demand. We need to make efforts to ensure that they follow up on what the state is doing to investigate these crimes.
The Attorneys General of forty states have inquired about the grand jury process in Pennsylvania. Let's get statewide investigations going in fifty states.
Note to Letter Writers
Use your own words and style of writing. Cut and paste from the templates as you wish. Include your experiences, whether as a survivor or as a member of the community. And relate your letter to the state you were abused in or state now living in.