Even municipal judge speaks well of cleric facing marijuana case
BARBERTON – She was sitting in the middle of the front row of the public seating area in Barberton Municipal Court, clutching a rosary in her lap and praying for the defendant.
Beth Douglas, a 41-year-old mathematics teacher at Akron’s East High School and a mother of four, was one of more than 20 Prince of Peace Catholic Church parishioners watching in court Wednesday as their pastor, the Rev. Richard A. Arko, appeared before Judge Michael L. Weigand to have an arraignment scheduled.
Arko, 40, was arrested by Norton police last week on a felony charge of cultivating marijuana in the church rectory.
Douglas said she and many other Prince of Peace parishioners are “completely devastated” by the charge and are praying that, somehow, it’s not true.
“It’s just the most painful thing,” Douglas said, her voice shaking as she left the courtroom. “It’s like losing somebody, like they’re taking him away from us.”
And when the hearing was over, even the judge appeared to have sympathy for Arko’s throng. As Weigand left the bench in his black robe, he walked directly toward the gallery, stopped and said: “He’s a good man. My prayers are with him, too.”
The parishioners, filling the wooden benches to near capacity, applauded.
Arko’s booking records, which are standard procedure for all inmates at the Summit County Jail, say the priest admitted to county sheriff’s deputies in his intake interview last week that he used marijuana.
He made the admission in a section of the interview titled “Personal Habits.” Under the subheading “Narcotics Use,” the priest stated simply: “marijuana.” He said he did not use alcohol or tobacco, in answer to the other two questions.
The deputy who conducted the interview said Arko answered all questions and was cooperative.
Arko, who appeared in court with Akron lawyer Don Varian at his side, is scheduled to be arraigned in Summit County Common Pleas Court on Feb. 6. The priest is free on a personal recognizance bond.
A second man, Jensen J. Powell, 24, who was living in the four-bedroom church rectory on Shannon Avenue and was arrested along with Arko, faces a felony charge of trafficking in marijuana.
Appearing Wednesday by video from the county jail, Powell had his bond lowered to $1,000. The judge imposed an additional $5,000 signature bond, which was co-signed by Powell’s father, Gary Powell of Barberton.
Thomas A. Ciccolini, Jensen Powell’s lawyer, said the defendant will live in his father’s home on 21st Street Northwest as the case proceeds. He also is scheduled for a Feb. 6 arraignment in Common Pleas Court.
Arko, wearing his long, dark hair in a ponytail, was dressed in a charcoal gray sweater, khaki slacks and black shoes. He made no statement to the judge and immediately left the courtroom after the short hearing, leaving Varian to speak to the parishioners in the gallery.
“I know it’s difficult for your parish,” Varian told them. “I can only tell you he truly expresses his appreciation for your help and your prayers. It’s a difficult time.”
Varian said afterward that he was retained by Arko’s family. Making brief remarks to reporters and television crews, the lawyer said it is going to take several months to resolve the case, and he urged everyone “to reserve judgment” until then.
Fund-raiser for priest
On Tuesday night, more than 50 people braved the ice and snow to show their support for Arko at a fund-raiser at Tom & Gordy’s Best Burger, 560 W. Tuscarawas Ave. in downtown Barberton.
Waitresses served food dressed in 1960s-style tie-dye love beads.
Restaurant co-owner and Arko supporter Thomas Jenney said the event raised about $200, which will be turned over to Arko this week.
Jenney said he met Arko in 1996 when Jenney worked at St. Augustine Church. Four years later, he said, Arko helped him after he had suffered a severe sports injury. “I was in pain for 18 months, and the pain can drive you to being almost suicidal,” Jenney said. “I went to see Rick because I was very depressed, and we prayed, and I felt better.”
Jenney said he has no knowledge of whether Arko was growing marijuana, but he and co-owner Gordy Rosbo wanted to hold the fund-raiser, he said, to show the priest that the people he has touched are behind him.
“He’s an ultrastrict vegan and a yogi. I don’t think Rick would do something for personal gain or something he thought was blatantly immoral or corrupt,” Jenney said.
“This is someone who married you, buried your grandma, sat with her at hospice. We have a lot more serious things to address in this country than whether the parish priest smokes pot.”
Family followed priest
Fourteen-year-old Sara Bowen, who attended the fund-raiser with her mother, said the family switched to Prince of Peace parish because of Arko.
“Father Rick made everything more personal,” Sara said. “He shared vacation stories in his homilies and made us understand the Gospel on a more down-to-earth basis. We knew he cared.”
Ed Struckel, who attended Wednesday’s court hearing and also was at the fund-raiser with his son-in-law, Curtis Fox, strongly defended the priest.
“To know him is to love him,” Struckel said. “If he did this, I’m sure it was for a good reason. I’d walk through fire for him.”
Calling Arko’s actions a “serious breach of judgment,” Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland said in a letter to parishioners Sunday that Arko will not be permitted to return to his pastoral duties at Prince of Peace once the case is resolved.
Struckel and Fox, however, said they would follow Arko if the diocese sends him to another parish.
“We’re praying for him and pulling for him,” Struckel said.