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  Lawsuits Cloud Diocese's Progress
Allentown Catholic Leaders Have to Do More to Address Actions in Sex Abuse Scandal, Observers Say

By Romy Varghese
The Morning Call
January 18, 2003

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.

No illusions

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.

Genuine concern

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.

 
 

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