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  Allentown Diocese Covered up Abuse Systematically, Suits Say
Actions Approach Sex Scandal in Novel Way. Lawyer to File Similar Lawsuits across State

By Kathleen Parrish kathleen.parrish@mcall.com and Romy Varghese
The Morning Call [Allentown PA]
Downloaded January 14, 2004

The Catholic Diocese of Allentown systematically covered up decades of sexual abuse by priests through secret files, code words and transfers while assuring victims no other children would be harmed, according to lawsuits by five alleged victims.

In the suits "four of which were filed in Lehigh County and one in Schuylkill County "alleged victims describe how they were abused by priests as children and how the diocese rebuffed their attempts as adults to acknowledge their suffering.

"I've been dealing with this for 32 years," said Patricia Beaumont, 46, of Lancaster County during a news conference Tuesday in Wyomissing, Berks County.

"I'm here because I want it to stop and so no one else has to spend that amount of time dealing with this," said Beaumont, who said she was sexually abused by two teachers, the Revs. Richard Guiliani and Leo Houseknecht, while a student at Notre Dame High School in Bethlehem Township during the 1970s.

Besides Guiliani and Houseknecht, the priests identified in the suits against the diocese and Bishop Edward P. Cullen and former Bishop Thomas J. Welsh are the Rev. Francis J. Fromholzer, who taught at Allentown Central Catholic High School; the Rev. Michael S. Lawrence, who taught at Central Catholic and Notre Dame; Monsignor William E. Jones, former vicar of the Southern Schuylkill Deanery who taught at Notre Dame, and Monsignor Dennis A. Rigney, who attended seminary with Cullen and for years was director of Catholic Charities and head of the Catholic Social Agency.

Guiliani left the priesthood 27 years ago, Houseknecht died in 1990 and the others are not in active ministry.

The suits say the diocese knew that many of its priests had a sexual interest in children, "and more specifically had knowledge of the sexual abuse of minors by its priests," including the Rev. Edward R. Graff, Monsignor Stephen Forish, the Rev. Thomas Bender, the Rev. James J. Mihalik, the Rev. Joseph Rock, the Rev. John Paul Sabas, and the Rev. David Soderlund.

Forish was acquitted in 1998 of soliciting a boy for sex in Bethlehem.

Surrounded by family, four of the five alleged victims attended the news conference Tuesday to put a face to their stories in hopes of protecting children from abusive priests, they said. Three of the five have gone public with their names and two are remaining anonymous.

The lawsuits, filed Monday, name the diocese and bishops as defendants but not the individual priests because the two-year statute of limitations for a civil action against them has expired. Attorney Richard Serbin of Altoona, who is representing the alleged victims with Jay N. Abramowitch, is interpreting the statute of limitations in a novel way. He is arguing that the clock on filing a lawsuit doesn't start ticking at the time the abuse occurred, but when the alleged victims learn of a diocese's attempts to conceal abuse.

It's a strategy he is employing in lawsuits across the state, including 13 he filed against the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese. He will announce similar claims today on behalf of four alleged victims in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and more could be coming in Allentown as well.

"We have only scratched the surface," he said.

The suits contend the diocese conspired to conceal the sexual abuse by employing a closed and secret system of internal reporting and using "code words" to limit the names of "predator priests" to within the diocese and affiliated psychiatric facilities. The diocese also promoted accused priests, continued to support them and transferred them without revealing past allegations.

This was done to protect the reputation of the diocese and its priests, the suits say.

At the same time, the diocese assured victims and their families that the offending priest had been dealt with and if abuse did occur, it was an isolated incident.

Diocesan spokesman Matt Kerr said priests in the five cases had been investigated by two district attorneys who concluded there were no prosecutable cases and that church officials didn't violate any laws or hinder prosecution of sexual abuse cases.

"It is noteworthy that attorney Serbin is known in a number of Pennsylvania dioceses for bringing such lawsuits even though the statute of limitations has expired," he said. "While the Diocese of Allentown regrets that any person may have been the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of any cleric, the diocese does reserve its right to defend itself against the charges in the lawsuit."

Although the suits seek more than $50,000 on each count of abuse, money is not behind them, said Scott Greis, a 39-year-old Schuylkill County man who said Jones began sexually abusing him when he was a 14-year-old altar boy at St. Vincent de Paul in Minersville.

"I just want an apology," he said.

Greis said he decided to go public after having a talk with his 17-year-old daughter about sexual predators. "It hit me in the face," he said.

The alleged abuses detailed in the suits took place between 1965 and 1982 and involved three girls and two boys who were ages 9 to 16 at the time. In Beaumont's case, the suit says the sexual abuse began while she was in high school and culminated when Guiliani visited her at college and proposed sexual intercourse and marriage.

The other plaintiffs include a 35-year-old Great Meadows, N.J., woman who said she was fondled by Rigney when she was 9 during a trip to Schuylkill County, a 34-year-old man who said Lawrence molested him in the St. Catharine of Siena rectory in Mount Penn, Berks County, when he was 12, and Juliann Bortz, a 54-year-old Lower Macungie Township woman who said she was molested by Fromholzer while a student at Allentown Central Catholic.

Bortz and Lawrence's alleged victim, identified as John Doe in his suit, previously told their stories in The Morning Call.

The suits against the Allentown Diocese claim that Bishops Cullen and Welsh knew of the accused priests' predilection toward children and transferred them to other assignments where they would have access to minors without alerting the new parishes of the priests' alleged abusive history.

The lawsuits come a week after the Allentown Diocese was deemed in compliance of a national mandate requiring dioceses to have child abuse prevention policies.

The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was adopted by U.S. bishops in November 2002, and every diocese was audited to ensure it met the policy's requirements.

The Allentown Diocese also received a commendation for expanding a program that helps parishioners and clergy work through the church's sexual abuse scandal.

Last month the diocese said 34 people have accused 27 priests of sexual abuse over the diocese's history. None of those priests who are living is in active ministry, it said, and two-thirds of the incidents were reported to the diocese 10 or more years after the incidents happened.

David Cerulli, head of the New York chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), spoke at the news conference in Wyomissing, where Abramowitch has his law office, and dismissed the statistics from the diocese, calling them "little more than self-reports."

Cerulli, who settled a sexual abuse claim with the Allentown Diocese for $40,000, wore a photo of himself as a freckle-faced 14-year-old around his neck. He lauded the alleged victims for having the courage to come forward to protect other children from pedophile priests.

"Only in this way can we be assured history will not repeat itself," said Cerulli, whose alleged abuser, the Rev. John Paul Sabas, died in 1996.

In June 2002, the alleged victims made attempts to contact the diocese in search of advice and spiritual counsel and were "totally rebuffed," said Abramowitch, who wouldn't go into specifics. Diocesan officials failed to acknowledge they were abused, didn't enter a dialogue with the alleged victims, or said they would look into the allegations but never followed up on them, he said.

"All they've asked is for the church to acknowledge their suffering," said Abramowitch. "They never did that."

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