Victim Says She Was Abused by Former Immaculate Conception Teacher Multiple Times Inside School

| March 8, 2019

CLARION, Pa. (EYT) – A woman who says she was sexually abused by a teacher at Immaculate Conception School in Clarion in the 1970’s has finally seen her abuser’s name added to the Public Disclosure List.

Leila Said Gutowski, 55, told exploreClarion.com that she was abused by James Hewitt, a teacher at Immaculate Conception School in Clarion, when she was 12 to 13 years old.

Hewitt is listed on the Erie Diocese Public Disclosure List of those credibly accused as a deceased former lay teacher, and the Diocese of Erie confirmed that Hewitt taught at Immaculate Conception School in Clarion from either 1973 or 1974 to 1984, when he resigned.

“At least one other person finally came forward to corroborate that the teacher who abused me also abused them,” Gutowski told exploreClarion.com.

According to Gutowski, Hewitt began making advances toward her during his first year teaching at Immaculate Conception and started with letters of a sexual nature but soon escalated to physical acts. This abuse occurred on multiple occasions inside the school when the teacher would take her away from her classmates, often to a utility or locker room. The abuse continued on a regular basis until her family moved away in 1976.

While she was initially convinced by Hewitt that she would not be believed if she reported him, and also frightened by his threats of violence, Gutowski finally worked up the courage to report the abuse in December of 1984, after hearing rumors that the same teacher was abusing other children.

According to Gutowski, her report was not received well, as the school administrator asked her: “What did you do to make him do that?” Nevertheless, according to Gutowski, Hewitt resigned his position at Immaculate Conception School the day after she reported him, and he immediately left the area.

“No one talked about it, he was just gone,” said Gutowski.

According to Gutowski, Hewitt was not the only teacher at Immaculate Conception School during that time period who is on the public disclosure list.

Charles R. “Rick” Cooper, of Lanexa, Virginia, is also now listed in the Erie Diocese Public Disclosure List as a credibly accused former lay teacher.

Anne-Marie Welsh, Director of the Diocese of Erie Office of Communications, told exploreClarion.com that a personnel file was not available for Charles R. “Rick” Cooper to verify his employment at Immaculate Conception School, but a victim did report abuse by Cooper occurring in 1975, and another victim reported abuse by Cooper around 1977. Welsh was unable to say where the incidents of abuse occurred.

Gutowski and two other former students said Cooper worked at Immaculate Conception as a teacher in the 1970’s. A school news article published by The Derrick newspaper in 1975 also referred to an Immaculate Conception teacher by the name of “Richard Cooper.”

Fr. Joseph F. Meisinger, who served at Immaculate Conception from 1956 to 1972, was added to the public disclosure list in April 2018.

While the recent name disclosures have helped confirm Gutowski’s initial allegations, she hopes that they will also help to make more victims feel empowered to come forward.

“Just as in so many instances in our society, many women have been trying to get this out for years, like I did in the 80s, but it wasn’t until some men could gather momentum and money that this was finally really brought forward,” she noted.

“I want to speak out for all of those who haven’t been able to come forward, including my family member and his classmate at I.C. who represent so many others in the world who have been abused and stayed silent.”

According to Gutowski, she also reported the abuse to local police after making her initial report to the school in the 1980s but was told she was reporting past the statute of limitations for the crime, so little could be done.

Following the revelations of widespread abuse in Catholic churches in New England in 2002, Gutowski decided to try to reach out a second time in 2003. She said she spoke to a representative of the Diocese of Erie who she says told her “it would not be a good idea” to persist in seeking justice for her abuser.

“Even when I came forward, before anyone else, it was just buried,” Gutowski said.

“Even now, the position of the churches and schools is to go to the diocesan seat to report abuse and seek help, but for those of us who are long-term survivors, after 35 years and it is just now coming out that they’re admitting to the abuse, we don’t trust the church to protect us. I wouldn’t go back to them because I’d already been told my abuse didn’t exist. The diocese says to come forward and they’ll offer help, but we don’t believe that. They’re not equipped yet to police themselves and offer help where those who have been abused can really express themselves and feel safe and protected.”

Gutowski noted that the recent Vatican summit, held in late February, focused on the issue of sexual abuse in the church was a historic move, but also said she and many other survivors weren’t pleased with the results, or lack thereof.

“There are still things that a lot of us survivors don’t agree with or are really just stunned with, and one of those things is there’s still no zero tolerance policy. There are also a number of known abusers whose files were deliberately shredded, which was made known by Cardinal Marx from Germany, and things like this are why some people will never be able to go forward with accusations.”

According to the Washington Post, the summit, which was an unprecedented event, ended with very little accomplished in terms of concrete remedies and left the church asking for more time, yet again, to seeks better ways to police itself.

“I’m not calling for litigation, but the church is asking to police itself, and it has already been doing that, and it hasn’t protected people that way,” Gutowski said.


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