Bless Me Father

In life, Father Don Rooney was loved by thousands. In death, he became an ugly caricature of the Catholic Church.

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Mary Lou Vasitas balances a thick black scrapbook on her lap. She cannot keep her emotions nearly so steady. They rise and fall with each turn of the page, heaving unchecked as she remembers her son, Father Don Rooney.

Snapshots of him presiding over his first Mass in 1979 bring a proud mother's smile. "He had 23 good years as a priest," she says, running her fingers over the pictures. "He had a big following. He had a big heart."

A group photo of Don with the First Communion class he taught in 1980 brings a flash of anger. "I look at this and I wonder, 'Which one is a traitor? Which one is Judas?'"

Then she falls silent. She's reached the photos of her son lying in his coffin. He is dressed in the white vestment and red stole she made for his first Mass all those years ago. Her eyes brim with tears. "Poor kid," she finally says. "How he must have suffered."

She closes the book and wipes away her tears. "He's at peace now," she says. "He's in God's hands. No one can persecute him anymore."

Mary Lou wants to believe her words. She wants to feel that in death, Don escaped any who would seek to destroy him. But she knows the sentiment is more wish than inviolable truth. For as soon as Father Rooney's life ended, the assault on his reputation began.

Rooney, associate pastor at St. Anthony's of Padua in Parma, committed suicide on April 4. Two days earlier, Cleveland diocese officials had called him to arrange a meeting. They wanted to discuss a woman's allegation that Rooney sexually abused her as a child in 1980, when he served at Sacred Heart of Jesus in Wadsworth.

Rooney, 48, skipped the meeting the next morning and went missing. He was found 24 hours later, slumped behind the wheel of his Buick LeSabre in a parking lot in Hinckley. He had put a bullet in his head.

Rooney's suicide, and the anonymous accusation that preceded it, proved an irresistible story. His name soon became a sound bite, his picture a stock image for reports on the broader scandal within the Catholic Church. Disbelieving family and friends saw the media reduce the clergyman they revered to a single, ugly sentence: "The priest who killed himself amid allegations of sexual abuse." They reeled from what they felt the coverage not so subtly implied: Only a guilty man would commit suicide.

In the days after his death, four more women and the father of another went public with similar charges against Rooney, the first U.S. priest in six years to commit suicide in the wake of abuse allegations. Two women who claim Rooney molested them have filed suits against the diocese and St. Patrick Catholic Church in West Park. But with the identity of the accuser who made the original charge still unknown, and with the credibility of the others so far unexamined, Rooney's defenders -- and there are thousands -- refuse to condemn him. To them, he was buried not once, but twice: first his body, then his good name.

There was, Mary Lou recalls, "a difference in Don" from an early age. Shy and bookish, he preferred Scripture to sports while growing up in North Olmsted. He liked to help the nuns at St. Angela Merici, staying after school to grade papers and tidy up classrooms. During summer, he volunteered to tutor students who struggled in math or religion class.

The third of Mary Lou and John Rooney's four children, young Don heard the priesthood beckoning by the sixth grade. When he told his parents that one day he hoped to enter the clergy, his mother encouraged the idea. His father mocked it, saying, "You're not going into the seminary. You don't know what you want to be."

John Rooney was a firefighter, an alcoholic, and he was often absent from the household. Most of his withering abuse he saved for his wife, but the kids also were exposed. Mary Lou remembers a time he cussed out their oldest son, Dale. Don, upstairs doing his homework, secretly recorded the rant on a tape player. The next morning, he came downstairs and said, "You know, Dad, you did something wrong."

"What did Daddy do?" John Rooney sneered.

When Don played the tape, his father's scorn turned to rage. He grabbed the recorder, smashed it with a hammer, and threw the fragments into a field behind the house. The incident rattled Mary Lou more than her youngest son, who insisted, "We have to tell Dad when he's doing something wrong."

Dean Rooney, two years Don's elder and now a Cleveland attorney, says his little brother "was a priest even when he was a kid. He was selfless . . . but he also had a firm resolve."

In the end, John Rooney didn't block his son's path. Fourteen-year-old Don enrolled at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe in 1967. With his black-framed glasses and loopy grin, he resembled a pubescent Buddy Holly. He was surrounded by fellow anti-hippies, teenage ascetics displaced in the era of "If it feels good, do it." They were forced to rise at 5 a.m. every day and allowed to return home only one weekend a month.

The switch in lifestyle jarred Rooney. After spending a weekend in North Olmsted, he would sob during the drive back to Wickliffe. "He wasn't upset about deciding to become a priest," Mary Lou says. "It was just hard knowing he had to get up at 5 a.m. the next day."

His anxiety would ebb as he made friends and adjusted to the seminary's rigors. A good student and well-liked by the staff, he served for a time as secretary to Anthony Pilla, who headed Borromeo prior to becoming bishop. Rooney was "polite and diligent," says Father James Reymann of St. Patrick Church in Wellington, who taught at the seminary in the 1970s.

One of Rooney's closest companions was David Novak, now the pastor at Holy Trinity in Lorain. "Don always made it better for me -- we could always make each other laugh," he says. As much as faith and self-discipline, they needed humor to survive: Of the 48 students who started at Borromeo with them, fewer than half remained when they finished in 1979.

Critics blame the three-fourths dropout rate in Catholic seminaries -- as well as the church's mushrooming abuse scandal -- largely on the vow of celibacy. The prospect of a lifetime without intimacy becomes too much for teenagers to bear. "There's an essential loneliness in celibate life that has to be absorbed, that will never be gotten rid of," says author A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk who has studied sexuality in the priesthood for 25 years. "It's a daunting notion for most young men."

Yet loved ones say Rooney never betrayed any torment about chastity, even in his teens and early 20s. He would say that as a parent, he might give direction to two or three children. As a pastor, he could guide thousands.

"When you become a priest, you know you're going to be celibate," he once told his mother. "If you can't do that, then you get out."

Sitting in her North Olmsted home, Mary Lou reopens the scrapbook to pictures of Rooney posing with kids after confirmation and First Communion services. She then clenches her fists, as if to spar with anyone who would interpret something sinister in the photos. "My son didn't do anything."

Therese Ware met Rooney at Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1980. He arrived in Wadsworth after serving a short stint at an Akron church. Ware and a classmate, both 17, were youth coordinators for a spiritual retreat and introduced themselves to the church's new associate pastor.

Rooney, 27 at the time, offered a preemptive apology in return. "Please don't be offended if I don't remember your names."

"That's OK, Sam," Ware's friend shot back. Rooney guffawed. The name stuck, and a friendship was sealed.

Some years later, after Rooney moved on to another church, he mentioned to Ware that he needed to drive to Iowa. A man he knew from another parish had passed away there and requested that Rooney preside at his funeral.

"So Sam gets in his car, drives to Iowa, and does the service," Ware says. "Then he gives someone he's met at the funeral a ride to Chicago, then drives back to Cleveland -- all in a couple of days. That was Sam."

The anecdotes reveal the two qualities that Rooney's friends and family tend to bring up when reminiscing about him: his good-natured sense of humor and a humble devotion to his work that trumped everything else.

"He put duty first," says Ware, who used to tease Rooney for missing her first wedding to oversee a funeral. "If he was with friends and having fun but he had to go to see someone in the hospital, he went."

While a priest who can take a joke seems an anomaly, one who performs good deeds is anything but. In the crush of stories that followed Rooney's suicide, however, the allegations against him blotted out his life's work. He mutated into a caricature: the man of the cloth turned pervert. His supporters defy that depiction.

Attorney Ron Falconi got acquainted with Rooney at St. Columbkille in Parma, where Rooney served from 1991 to 1996. He recalls how the priest spent several nights at the hospital, visiting a friend of Falconi's who was racked by a deadly illness. "I just remember how much it meant that he took the time to show up," says Falconi, whose friend would recover. "Just by talking and listening, he knew how to give people hope."

Dawn Zmecek first spoke to Rooney at St. Anthony's in Parma, where he began serving in 1999. She asked if he would meet with her sister, a non-Catholic trapped in an abusive marriage. Rooney agreed. "Most priests would have just told her to work out the problems," Zmecek says. "But he told her, 'Do what's best for you.'" Her sister eventually decided to divorce.

A common-sense spirituality -- a balance struck between real-world ambiguities and Catholic rigidity -- defined Rooney's ministry. Despite standing 6 feet 4, he didn't preach from on high. "He'd say, 'If you don't like something with your church, that's OK, but don't give up your faith, and don't give up on God,'" Zmecek recalls.

Smaller gestures of grace also put parishioners at ease. Rooney would smile as he delivered communion. He kept his homilies short -- under five minutes -- and to the point, his only notes a sentence or two scribbled on a recipe card. He went without sleep to hold the hands of the dying.

Edward Hudak, 87, lost his wife, Jeanne, last year after a series of strokes. Rooney's numerous trips to her hospital room calmed Edward as much as Jeanne. "I really appreciated what he did for us," Hudak says, his voice cracking. "He gave us a lot of comfort. He helped me get through it."

Amid his priestly obligations, Rooney doted on his mother, calling her every other day, even when she lived outside Ohio. Mary Lou had married Wally Vasitas in 1974, two years after John Rooney died of cirrhosis, and moved to New Mexico in the mid-'80s. Don visited them when he could, on one occasion renting a limo on their anniversary and stocking it with the Laurel and Hardy videos that he and Wally loved.

The two men shared a tight bond, referring to each other as father and son, and it was Don who relocated to Albuquerque in 1998 when Alzheimer's began ravaging Wally. As the disease worsened, Don persuaded his mother to return to Ohio so he could look after the couple. When Wally became too weak to rise from his recliner, Don held Mass in their living room. Hours before the older man passed away at home in 2000, Don delivered last rites.

"He scheduled his life around other people's needs," Dean Rooney says.

But no priest can devote almost a quarter-century to the clergy without hearing unkind words. Don Rooney took the faintest criticism hard.

The Reverend James Conry joined Sacred Heart as its pastor in 1982, two years after the alleged abuse involving Rooney occurred. They shared living quarters, meals, and spirited conversation. But Conry remembers Rooney's stung reaction to a handful of parishioners who hectored him about being too strict with their children in a confirmation class. Their words cut deep, so much so that Rooney rarely returned to Sacred Heart after he departed for another church in 1984.

Conry, who backed up the young associate pastor against his critics, says Rooney acted less bitter than wounded. "He didn't like to confront a situation in which he couldn't answer the criticism or somehow put things in the right place in his mind."

It was a trait that would lead to his death.

Rooney presided over Easter Mass at St. Anthony's on Sunday, March 31. He appeared relaxed and upbeat, according to those who attended. Helen Spirakus watched him cradle a couple's newborn after the service, a wide smile lighting his face. "Father Don looked like our Lord looking down at that baby," she says. "So radiant."

Rooney joined his family for lunch at a Westlake restaurant that afternoon, then spent the rest of the day tending to church matters. On Monday, diocese officials tried in vain to reach him after receiving a call from a woman who claimed Rooney molested her 22 years ago. Details of the alleged incident have yet to emerge, pending outcome of a criminal inquiry by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office into the Catholic Church abuse scandal.

The diocese tracked down Rooney early Tuesday and asked him to meet with Bishop Pilla the next morning. Later on Tuesday, Rooney stopped by his mother's house with four or five small boxes of belongings; she was out at the time. The boxes contained financial and personal papers, books, and knickknacks, Dean says. He's unsure if his brother wanted to put his affairs in order before killing himself; the note Don left for their mother, written in small, neat script, provides no clear answer:

Hi Mom --

It's just me. I dropped off a few boxes and put them in the garage. Could you store them for me, for a little bit.

Thanks, Don

-- I'll call you later.

Rooney did call, only to apologize he couldn't visit that night. "I have something I have to do," he told Mary Lou. "We'll get together later."

The conversation was Rooney's last with anyone in his family. He missed the meeting Wednesday morning and did not return to St. Anthony's rectory in the evening. Police later learned he spent the night alone at a Strongsville hotel. Concerned diocese officials contacted authorities Wednesday to file a missing person report and notified Rooney's family. Dean left a message on his brother's voice mail, asking him to call.

On Thursday, Dean went to his mother's house to calm her and await word on Don. A short time later, he phoned the rectory and received the grim news: His brother had shot himself.

The final Hinckley police report on Rooney's suicide is still weeks from completion, and the county's grand jury investigation may take months. The prosecutor's office, the diocese, and pastors at the six area churches where Rooney served declined comment, citing the ongoing probe.

As a result, much remains hazy about the end of his life: how he spent his last 36 hours. Where he got a gun. Why he chose a drugstore parking lot to kill himself. Whether guilt or fear of humiliation fueled his decision.

Meanwhile, the desolation he endured gnaws at his loved ones.

"When I think about what he must have been going through," Dean says, "my heart breaks."

Don Rooney shared his older brother's laid-back disposition, but that equilibrium had tilted. Dean believes the prospect of getting dragged into the church's sex scandal horrified Don. Whatever good he had done and still might do, he would feel forever stalked by public suspicion.

"He knew it was something where he could never win, never prevail, even if he was exonerated," Dean says. "His life would be inexorably altered after that. He perceived his life's work as over."

Don Rooney surely realized that the call from the diocese had him dangling over a media cauldron. A week earlier, the diocese suspended Father Raymond Bartnikowski of St. Victor in Richfield, after fielding an allegation that he spanked a schoolgirl's bare bottom in the 1960s. News outlets boiled him within hours. Rooney also was aware he would sit face to face with Pilla, his former seminary instructor and the putative father figure within the diocese. "That would have been a crushing moment," Ware says.

Mary Lou believes her son felt cornered. With his sense of privacy about to be shattered -- and about to be branded a molester before he could mount a defense -- he chose death.

"I know why he killed himself," she says. "It wasn't because of some hidden secret or 'Oh, he did it because he's guilty.' It's because he knew, when he walked down the street, some people would wonder if he could be trusted. He couldn't stand the thought of that. He died of a broken heart."

The perception that suicide equals guilt is a pervasive one. Yet Dr. Michael Morris, a Cleveland psychologist whose brother is a priest, counters that killing oneself represents a final, violent attempt to exert control over chaos. "Suicide on a clinical level is not so much about guilt. It's about despair, a sense of helplessness."

Faith binds a pastor to comfort the afflicted and ask nothing in return. Ware thinks her old friend understood that solitary burden and refused to place it on anyone else.

"Hundreds of his friends say, 'Why didn't he come to me?'" she says. "I think in a way everyone wishes that -- everyone wanted to help him. But you know what? Never. He's the pastor, you're the congregation. He's the one who helps, he doesn't go to you for help."

Rooney's accusers assign no nobility to his suicide. "He took the easy way out," Kelli Colling bluntly told a TV station a week after Rooney's suicide. She charges that he groped her and five other middle school students while he served at St. Patrick in West Park in the mid-'80s.

In the past month, two women who attended the school have sued the diocese and the church over Rooney's alleged abuse. San Francisco resident Regina Scolaro, 30, says the priest rubbed his hand over her upper body and kissed her; she is asking $10 million in damages. In the second suit, an unidentified woman charges that Rooney fondled her and dozens of other children while fitting them for altar robes and rubbed his body against a boy. She says a teacher ignored her complaints, and her efforts to organize a boycott of the altar-girl program failed. The 25-year-old plaintiff is seeking class-action status for her suit, which would enable other alleged victims to join it.

Other women have said publicly that Rooney owned a "dark side" and "got into your personal space." The claims draw a pointed response from Mary Lou. "They're trying to get their hands in the Catholic till," she says.

The skepticism of Rooney's family, while predictable, is echoed by young parishioners he befriended. Krista Van Dyke, a Kent State University sophomore, met Rooney three years ago at St. Anthony's. Working with the youth group she belonged to, he related to students with greater ease than other priests, who appeared detached, out of touch, or both.

"He was so knowledgeable, but he didn't act like he was above anyone," says Van Dyke, 19. "People felt comfortable around him. He was always the first one to laugh at a joke."

If Rooney sometimes struck adults as reserved, he displayed an easy rapport with children. When the pews were packed at Sunday Mass, he would invite kids to sit on the altar with him. To connect better with grade-schoolers, he would watch SpongeBob cartoons. To do likewise with teens, he would take in the movie Wayne's World to become fluent in Waynespeak: When a student said, "No way," he'd answer, "Way."

Van Dyke and others scoff at descriptions of Rooney harboring a dark side. Corrie Callaghan and her younger sister attended grade school at St. Columbkille in the early '90s, when Rooney served as its associate pastor. "There were never any accusations or anything like that," says Callaghan, who graduated from Ohio University this spring. "He was well-liked and respected by everyone."

The same holds true for earlier in his career, Ware says. She attended Sacred Heart in 1980, the year Rooney purportedly abused a girl at the church. No whispers of the pastor groping girls surfaced back then. Now, after the passage of 22 years, she doubts the motives and memories of his accusers.

"How many sixth-, seventh-, or eighth-grade students think their teachers are creepy? All of them," Ware says. "I would bet my life against someone proving that he was a pedophile or guilty of what they're accusing him of."

The Cleveland diocese has suspended at least two dozen active, retired, and former priests, several on the basis of anonymous allegations. Yet in contrast to many of his brother's defenders, Dean Rooney shows an absence of malice toward the accusers.

"There is no way to reconcile the allegations with the person I believed my brother to be, and I don't believe he ever acted inappropriately. But I don't want to be any more judgmental about someone who made allegations from 20 years ago than Don would have been."

When the subject shifts to media coverage, however, Dean is less forgiving. The slights range from small -- reports misidentifying Don as Ron -- to significant: An article in The Plain Dealer in May suggested the diocese "forced" him to transfer to New Mexico in 1998. The insinuation infuriates his supporters. A diocese spokesman confirms their assertion that Rooney requested the move.

The guilty-until-proven-innocent bent to the coverage has persuaded family members to stiff-arm the press for the most part. (Diane Lewin, Don's sister, declined comment; older brother Dale Rooney, who is temporarily working in the U.S. territory of Wake Island, could not be reached.) But despite feeling Don's integrity has been chewed up -- while the credibility of his accusers is swallowed whole -- Dean, for one, has adopted a fatalistic attitude about the news.

"There's no point in fighting it. My brother's dead. There's no way Don can defend himself now."

Bishop Pilla presided over Rooney's funeral at St. Anthony's on April 9. A rapt gathering of more than 1,000 listened as he struggled to put the priest's suicide into perspective.

"The meaning of Father Rooney's death is hidden from our eyes," he said.

Pilla himself has been hard to glimpse in recent months, as sex abuse allegations batter the diocese. But it's fair to say Rooney's suicide shook him. He traveled to Mary Lou's home days after her son's death, one of six priests who visited. "He came in and put his arms around me," she recalls. "He had tears coming down his face."

Others have coped in their own way. Reverend Conry sought sanctuary at a Kentucky seminary to reflect on Rooney's death. Van Dyke fashioned a bead bracelet that spells out "Be With Me Father Don." Zmecek has cut down on her churchgoing, still dismayed to think her favorite priest won't be there to greet her.

Ironically, Rooney's death made evident the reach and depth of his ministry. Dean estimates the family has heard from and met some 5,000 people who came in contact with his brother during his 23 years as a clergyman. "He probably never understood how deeply loved he was by so many people," Dean says.

The outpouring gives relief to Mary Lou, who salves her grief by sending thank-you cards to the hundreds of sympathizers who wrote her. She takes solace in what many have told her: "If Father Don's not in heaven, we don't stand a chance." She also starts each day with 45 minutes of prayer. When she's finished, she sometimes talks to the framed pictures of Wally and Don that hang side by side in her home.

Then, often as not, the tears come again.

"God called Father Don to heaven for a reason," she says. "If one of the good priests had to go up to heaven so other priests who are not so good start getting caught, then he didn't die in vain."

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