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Cleveland priest probe hits 6 states

Number of abuse claims stun Cuyahoga prosecutor

Saturday, November 23, 2002

James F. McCarty
Cleveland Plain Dealer Reporter

The first results of a six-month investigation by a Cuyahoga County grand jury into child sex abuse in the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland began arriving at prosecutors' offices across the country yesterday.

Earlier this week, Prosecutor William Mason mailed out about two dozen packets of information his staff collected from diocesan files and interviews with nearly 800 self-described victims of sex abuse over the past 50 years.

The files contain evidence of child sex abuse in six states and 17 Ohio counties that Mason investigated but that are outside his Cuyahoga County jurisdiction, he said.

Several boxes of additional files with potentially stronger cases were hand-delivered yesterday to prosecutors in Summit and Lake counties, where the crimes supposedly occurred. About 10 of the outside cases are strong enough to result in charges, Mason said.

Mason said the sheer magnitude of child sex abuse allegations that his investigation uncovered in the Cleveland diocese has left him stunned and dismayed.

"As a Catholic, I can't understand it," Mason said. "I guess it's probably a product of hundreds of years of how the church chose to deal with it. It's a very secret society."

The full returns from an investigation Mason calls "unprecedented in scope and magnitude" won't be known until Dec. 3. That is the day when nine members of the grand jury will cast their votes on whether to indict any of the 100 priests or 260 others connected with the diocese who have been accused of sexually abusing children. For an indictment to happen, seven grand jurors must vote yes.

Mason said he expects several priests will be indicted, but he wouldn't speculate how many. He characterized about half a dozen of the cases as "tough calls" that could go either way, depending on the grand jury's mindset. But most of the cases are either too old or too weak to be prosecuted, Mason said.

The grand jury has heard testimony twice a week for the past two months from victims, police and 25 assistant county prosecutors who assisted in the investigations, Mason said.

"It's been a complete accounting" of all known allegations of child sex abuse in the diocese, Mason said.

Mason maintained strict secrecy during the grand jury proceedings and threatened to fire any subordinate who violated his gag edict. Nevertheless, some names of priests and teachers have trickled out as lawyers and family members have become aware of the evidence presented to the grand jury.

The prosecutor's office offered the Rev. Daniel McBride a plea bargain that would have allowed him to avoid the indictment process, according to legal sources. But McBride turned down the offer.

McBride, retired since 1987 but serving as a senior associate pastor at St. Barnabas parish in Northfield, is one of 15 priests in the diocese who have been suspended since April in response to child-abuse accusations. Thirteen former and retired priests also have been named by the diocese.

McBride has been accused of sexually abusing a teenage boy who had traveled with the priest to Chautauqua, N.Y., to buy a boat there, a source said.

In Summit County, Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh received investigative files compiled on the Rev. Neil Conway and a former priest, George Bailey. Lake County Prosecutor Charles Coulson received a file on Jerry Bals, a former guidance counselor at Lake Catholic High School and an ordained deacon in Eastlake, a source said.

Conway, 65, is retired and living on a farm in Cuyahoga Falls. He has admitted to reporters to sexually abusing at least eight boys during the course of his 22 years as a priest. But friends say the number of victims is much larger.

Bailey left the priesthood more than 20 years ago. But before then, at least 10 women came forward to accuse Bailey of sexually abusing them as grade-school students at St. Vincent School in Akron and St. Mary's School in Bedford.

Bals, 60, who now works as a librarian, was charged in 1994 with sexually abusing at least six girls at Lake Catholic. The charges were dropped in a plea deal that required him to forfeit his teaching credentials.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

[email protected], 216-999-4858

Copyright 2002

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests