Lawsuits Cloud Diocese's Progress
Allentown Catholic Leaders Have to Do More to Address Actions in Sex Abuse Scandal, Observers Say
By Romy Varghese
Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
January 18, 2004
Until a week ago, the Allentown Catholic Diocese seemed to be emerging from the sexual abuse scandal that has jolted churches nationwide.
The diocese trained every priest, deacon and seminarian to spot and report sexual abuse of children. It even received a commendation for a Lenten program that brought together clergy and parishioners to talk about their faith in light of the scandal.
But on Monday, five people filed lawsuits claiming the diocese systematically concealed decades of abuse and has done little to address the damage it has done to victims.
Despite the progress the diocese has made in confronting the scandal, some predict such suits will continue to bedevil dioceses until officials find the best way to satisfy victims from the past.
"We're still in the early stages," said Linda Pieczynski, a national spokeswoman for Call to Action, a Chicago-based Catholic reform group.
Pieczynski said more and more victims will come forward if they continue to feel mistreated.
Dioceses are in a predicament, said Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly in Kansas City.
"The difficulty continues to be: What do you do about what happened?" Roberts said.
He said addressing past actions is a tremendous task for church officials nationwide because of the depth of the hurt and betrayal victims say they have suffered.
For the five people who sued the Allentown Diocese, that hurt goes back years -- to 1965-1982 when they were ages 9 to 16. The betrayals allegedly took place in high school basements, priests' bedrooms, after bingo games and on swimming trips, according to the suits.
It has led to years of eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, humiliation and a loss of faith, the suits say.
One of the plaintiffs, Juliann Bortz, who according to the lawsuit was fondled by the Rev. Francis J. Fromholzer while a student at Allentown Central Catholic High School in 1965, said she and the other plaintiffs were never acknowledged as victims by the diocese to their satisfaction.
When she met with the diocese's vicar general, Monsignor Alfred A. Schlert, in September 2002, she said, she was told the diocese had been unaware she was a victim even though her story had appeared on the front page of The Morning Call.
Schlert told her a member of the review board would contact her, but no one ever did, she said.
"Not even a phone call," said Bortz, of Lower Macungie Township, who is co-chairwoman of the local chapter of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Matt Kerr, diocesan spokesman, said he couldn't comment on the allegations that the victims were rebuffed.
"They're certainly disturbing, but they're not about the church now," Kerr said about the sexual abuse allegations.
Kerr also declined to comment on specifics of the suits, which were filed against Bishop Edward P. Cullen and former Bishop Thomas J. Welsh.
Cullen acknowledged the lawsuits in a letter read at diocesan Masses this weekend, saying the most recent allegation occurred more than 20 years ago. He said diocesan attorneys would launch a vigorous defense. The bishop also said he hopes that everyone will move forward with their faith.
Kerr said officials harbor "no illusions" that the church's efforts to move forward will free it of new allegations of past abuse.
The diocese, like others nationwide, has operated in an environment of heightened awareness since January 2002 when it was revealed that Boston Cardinal Bernard Law had knowingly transferred an abusive priest for 30 years.
Seven priests have been dismissed and one resigned over allegations of sexual abuse in the Allentown Diocese, which serves more than 270,000 Catholics in Lehigh, Berks, Carbon, Northampton and Schuylkill counties.
The diocese also opened itself to the scrutiny of district attorneys who found no prosecutable cases or indications of church officials hindering prosecutions.
Under orders from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the diocese set up programs to deal with future and past allegations of abuse. An audit released earlier this month as part of the nationwide mandate found the diocese to be in full compliance.
The diocese is in the third month of its two-year program of training everyone who comes into contact with children. Called Protecting God's Children, the program teaches people how to prevent abuse and help victims. As of last week, all priests, deacons, seminarians, diocesan employees and school principals had undergone the training, Kerr said. There also are people in the diocese trained to teach others in the program.
The diocese in early 2003 also appointed a victims' assistance coordinator who aids people who say they were abused as children.
Coordinator Barbara W. Murphy has met 17 victims as of October, Kerr said, while Bishop Cullen has met "in the neighborhood of 10" of the 17. A notice in the diocesan newsletter urges people to report abuse.
Kerr said he didn't know whether any of the five plaintiffs were among those who met with Murphy and Cullen.
Easy part done
Roberts of the National Catholic Reporter said dioceses have already done the easy part: setting up policies to comply with the mandate.
But trying to understand how the sexual abuse, secrecy and cover-ups possibly could have happened remains daunting, he said.
Before the latest lawsuits, the diocese paid more than $1 million to alleged victims of abuse in other cases. In addition, the diocese paid $222,512 to counsel priests accused of abuse and $42,547 for victims' counseling.
Pieczynski of Call to Action said dioceses need to do more to show they care, otherwise victims will continue to sue.
Pieczynski said victims' coordinators should search out possible victims based on records kept on abusive priests. They shouldn't wait for victims to come to them, she said.
"A lot of people don't feel comfortable with going to the church" to report abuse, she said.
Further, Pieczynski said, dioceses should release the identities of abusive priests, which would prompt more victims to come forward and bring more openness to the issue.
As part of the audit, the diocese revealed that 34 people have accused 27 priests of sexual abuse. The audit does not require dioceses to name the accused.
So far, the diocese has publicly identified only one of the priests accused of abuse. That priest, Monsignor William E. Jones, allegedly sexually abused one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits filed last week. The other priests will remain unnamed, Kerr said.
The lawsuits, filed in Lehigh and Schuylkill counties, name six priests accused of abuse by the plaintiffs. Besides Jones and Fromholzer, they are the Revs. Richard Guiliani, Leo Houseknecht, and Michael S. Lawrence and Monsignor Dennis A. Rigney. Houseknecht is dead and Guiliani resigned from the priesthood in 1977. The others are no longer in active ministry.
Others say the diocese is doing well in its efforts to deal with sexual abuse allegations.
Morale was better in Allentown compared with most dioceses she had visited, said Monica Applewhite, president of religious services of Praesidium Inc., a company from Arlington, Texas, that oversaw the sexual abuse prevention training in Allentown. Her company's program has been used by 100 dioceses.
Applewhite said she felt Cullen showed a "genuine" interest in seeing that people were trained to prevent abuse.
Cullen established a policy on dealing with sexual abuse in 1998, a year after he took over the diocese. He removed a priest for accusations of sexual abuse in 2000. After the scandal broke, he immediately removed four priests over prior accusations.
"What I experienced there was that people felt the bishop was on board," Applewhite said.
Larry Chapp, chairman of the theology department at DeSales University, Center Valley, also believes the diocese has demonstrated a willingness to deal with the problem through its new programs and cooperation with district attorneys.
"The diocese doesn't have much to worry about," he said, referring to the impact of last week's lawsuits on the diocese. Chapp also said that the suits probably have little effect on parishioners in the diocese. He said most people formed their opinions on how the scandal would affect their faith when it first broke.
"Most Catholics have already made their peace with the issue," Chapp said.
In five lawsuits filed last week against the Allentown Catholic Diocese, the plaintiffs allege the diocese knew many priests who had a sexual interest in children and or who had knowledge of the sexual abuse of minors by priests. They are:
The Rev. Thomas Bender, pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament in Bally, was sentenced to seven years' probation in 1988 for molesting a teenage Pottsville boy in the 1980s. A civil case with the boy and his family was settled by the diocese out of court. Bender is no longer a priest.
Monsignor Steven T. Forish, 57, former director of the diocesan Pro-Life Office, was charged with soliciting boys for sex in south Bethlehem in 1996. He was acquitted in Northampton County Court in 1998. He is listed in the diocesan directory as being in "postdoctoral residency" in McAdoo, Schuylkill County.
The Rev. Francis J. Fromholzer, 72, who served at a number of parishes, including Holy Ghost, Bethlehem, St. Peter's, Coplay and St. Francis of Assisi, Allentown, was accused in a lawsuit of allegedly kissing and fondling Juliann Bortz of Lower Macungie Township while she was a student and he was a teacher at Allentown Central Catholic in 1965. He agreed to leave assignment in September 2002 because of the abuse allegation. No longer an active priest.
The Rev. Edward R. Graff, who left the Allentown Diocese in 1988, was jailed in Texas in October 2002 on charges of molesting a teenage boy. He had been a priest, pastor and high school administrator during 31 years in the Allentown Diocese. Graff died at 73 in jail in November 2002.
The Rev. Richard Guiliani, 61, who left the priesthood in 1977, is accused in a lawsuit of allegedly sexually abusing Patricia Beaumont, now of Lancaster County, while she was a student at Notre Dame High School, Bethlehem Township. Beaumont alleges in her lawsuit that Guiliani visited her in college in 1975, took her out for dinner and asked her to marry him. When she refused, Guiliani never contacted her again, according to a lawsuit.
The Rev. Leo Houseknecht was pastor of Immaculate Conception, Kelayres, Schuylkill County, when he died at 53 in 1990. In a lawsuit, Patricia Beaumont alleges Houseknecht and Monsignor William E. Jones spoke to her using crude/sexual language and Houseknecht inappropriately hugged her while visiting her family in her home.
Monsignor William E. Jones, 69, is the former vicar of Southern Schuylkill Deanery who served as pastor of St. Patrick's, Pottsville, 1983-2002. In a lawsuit, Scott Greis of Schuylkill County alleges Jones fondled him and performed oral sex on him on numerous occasions, beginning in 1978 while Jones was at St. Vincent de Paul, Minersville. On one occasion, according to the lawsuit, Jones and another priest allegedly performed oral sex on Greis and several other boys on a trip to Jones' home in Tower City, Schuylkill County. In April 2002, he was removed from office by Bishop Edward P. Cullen and is no longer an active priest.
The Rev. Michael S. Lawrence, 56, is accused in a lawsuit of allegedly molesting a 12-year-old boy at St. Catharine of Siena, Mount Penn, Berks County, in the early 1980s. He was a member of the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal in February 2002 when he was dismissed by Cullen. At the time of his dismissal, he was chaplain to the nuns at the Carmelite Monastery in Coopersburg. He is no longer an active priest.
The Rev. James J. Mihalak, former pastor of Mary Queen of Peace Church, Pottsville, was charged with indecent assault of a 17-year-old boy he picked up hitchhiking in the Tamaqua area in 1997. He was dismissed from his duties. His whereabouts are unknown.
Monsignor Dennis A. Rigney, 63, one-time director of the Catholic Charities and head of the Catholic Social Agency, is accused in a lawsuit of allegedly sexually abusing a 9-year-old girl during a swimming trip at Lake Wynonah, Schuylkill County, in the late 1970s. He retired as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, Allentown, because of health problems and is no longer an active priest.
The Rev. Joseph A. Rock, former pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church in Mount Carbon, Schuylkill County, was sued in 1994 by a former altar boy who accused the priest of molestation over a three-year period. Rock denied the charges. The outcome of the suit is not known. The diocesan directory lists him as a resident of Holy Family Villa, Bethlehem.
The Rev. John Paul Sabas was accused of having an abusive relationship with David Cerulli, an Allentown altar boy, in the summer of 1964. Sabas was assistant pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in Allentown at the time. In 1989, Cerulli sued the diocese, later settling out of court for $40,000. Sabas died at 71 in 1996.
The Rev. David Soderlund. Soderlund admitted in court records that he had a sexual relationship with a boy in 1980 while serving as pastor of St. Joseph's Church, Summit Hill. He was removed and underwent counseling at St. John Vianney Center in Downingtown, Chester County, and was told to have no contact with children. In 1986, he became director of pastoral care at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center, Pottsville, and was later removed after reportedly having children assist at Mass as altar servers.
Sources: Lawsuits, Morning Call records, Diocese of Allentown.
"Accused Priests" attached to the end of this article.
CORRECTION-DATE: January 20, 2004 Tuesday
Monsignor Stephen Forish was acquitted in 1998 of charges of promoting prostitution, criminal attempt to commit the crime of patronizing prostitutes and criminal attempt to promote prostitution of children. A story Sunday was unclear on the nature of the charges.
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