Nordonia Hills -- In addition to sponsoring a www.change.org petition calling for Board of Education President Jim Virost's resignation, the Facebook group U-KNIGHTED for our Children has also sponsored a petition on the same website calling for the Cleveland Caltholic Diocese's "evaluation" of the Rev. Ralph Wiatrowski, pastor of St. Barnabas Parish.
"We are asking for the immediate evaluation of Father Ralph Wiatrowski as the right choice for pastor and leader of St. Barnabas Parish and School," the petition states.
Around 190 individuals had signed the online petition by press time May 22.
Both the Rev. Wiatrowski and Virost wrote pre-sentencing letters to the Summit County Court of Common Pleas on behalf of former School Board President Steve Bittel, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison on felony charges related to child pornography and a police standoff he initiated last September.
The Rev. Wiatrowski said he welcomes a review.
"I am always open to evaluation, I have no problem with that," he told the News Leader May 22. "I think people are making all kinds of illogical jumps and conclusions and things like that, that I don't understand"
He also described the circumstances surrounding his letter of support for Bittel.
"We were asked to give very brief impressions of Mr. Bittel and to give examples of how those impressions came about and any reasons why the court might show lienency and that's all I did.
"I didn't have access to all the facts of the case because it wasn't released at that time, it was simply my impressions to the judge," he added. "It just seems they are taking something and extrapolating that I knew everything the judge did."
He also explained his feelings regarding crime and punishment.
"My own thought was that I don't see a huge value in incarceration as something that helps a person deal with whatever problem they have -- and that's being interpreted as saying I don't think people should have any consequences. That's not it at all"
In a May 5 letter to parents of St. Barnabas students, the Rev. Wiatrowski said children's safety is a priority and outlined some of the procedures the parish takes to ensure children are not placed in danger.
"This topic has come to the fore recently due to news coverage about a parish family member," he said, referring to Bittel and noting Bittel had served both the parish school and Parish School of Religion program as a catechist, or religious teacher.
"It has come to my attention that some parisioners have questioned the wisdom of my providing a letter of support to Mr. Bittel in the sentencing phase of his legal proceeding," the Rev. Wiatrowski continued, adding his letter to the court "stated the facts of Mr. Bittel's involvement in parish life."
"In no way did I condone the base charges or offenses for which Mr. Bittel had already been convicted," he stated. "I regret deeply any interpretation that I would condone such behavior and I am sorry for the confusion."
In his letter to the court, the Rev. Wiatrowski asked for "any leniency that could be shown" to Bittel.
"Steve is a good man, though admittedly he has some flaws. In his case, I think his lesson has been well learned and incarceration would not be warranted," he wrote.
Some who signed the online petition calling for the Rev. Wiatrowski's removal posted comments calling for "zero tolerance" of child sexual abuse.
But not all members of U-KNIGHTED for our Children called for his removal.
"I do not think that St. Barnabas would be a better place without him," stated Joanne Smith in a post. "A priest wanted to serve a member of his parish. It is his job to minister to, and hopefully help reform, sinners. Maybe Father Ralph just took this too far."
Eric Marotta: 330-541-9433