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  Order Reaches out to Accusers
Abuse by Nuns, Priest Alleged

By Peter Smith psmith@courier-journal.com
The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY]
July 23, 2004

In their mission statement, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth say they want "to help people all over the world who are oppressed," working on behalf of battered women, the homeless, runaway teens and others.

So to be accused of committing the very acts of oppression they try to prevent has been "heartbreaking," their American leader said yesterday.

"Justice and peace are integral to our life," said Sister Susan Gatz, leader of the order's Western (or American) Province, based outside Bardstown, Ky. "...As we are moving through this situation, which is very new for us, we are trying to be faithful to who we are."

Her comments came in the order's most extensive response yet to a growing lawsuit accusing the order of tolerating sexual and physical abuse in its operations.

The dozen plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which expanded yesterday with new allegations, allege abuse by nuns and a resident priest decades ago at the now-closed St. Thomas-St. Vincent Orphanage in Anchorage, and at two schools.

"We are making every effort to seek the truth with regard to the allegations in front of us, and to treat everyone involved with great reverence," Gatz said at a news conference yesterday.

Gatz said the sisters are struggling to reconcile the allegations with their own positive memories of accused nuns.

"Our values and our policies call us to respond with compassion to those who are accusing, while at the same time remembering that those who are accused are innocent until proven guilty," she said.

Gatz offered to help any people who believe they suffered abuse at the orphanage. That could include meeting with the order's leaders and receiving help from a counselor, she said. "If recourse to law is not a process that would be healing for you, please know that the Sisters of Charity are open to having you contact us, and we will walk with you and work with you," she said, giving the order's office phone number: (502) 348-1510.

Gatz, speaking before yesterday's filings, said the order had no record of complaints against any of the three nuns named up to that point, although the archdiocese informed the order in recent weeks that it had heard from some accusers.

She acknowledged that the order's records from the orphanage are limited mainly to the personnel files of nuns who lived there because the order did not own the orphanage at the time.

The order administered and staffed the orphanage, but it was owned by the Archdiocese of Louisville through its Catholic Charities agency.

The longtime head of Catholic Charities, Monsignor Herman J. Lammers, lived at the orphanage and worked as its chaplain, Gatz said. Nine of the women in the lawsuit alleged they were sexually abused by Lammers, who died in 1983.

Gatz said the recent allegations have been especially difficult for longtime nuns who worked at the orphanage.

"That's a ministry that for years was extremely special to us," she said.

Many children have reported "that their experiences there were very influential and very positive to them," she said. "To hear that there are people who had traumatic experiences, painful experiences, that is hard for us to hear. We very much want to be a part of whatever healing can happen."

Gatz oversees about 450 nuns working in 16 states from Massachusetts to California.

The sisters' work with the orphanage dates back to 1832, when Mother Catherine Spalding established the St. Vincent Orphan Asylum. The St. Vincent girls' orphanage merged with the St. Thomas boys' home in Anchorage in 1952, where it stayed until its closing in 1982, according to the Sisters of Charity.

Attorney William McMurry, representing the plaintiffs, amended the lawsuits yesterday with several new allegations.

Two plaintiffs, Deborah Ferguson, 47, and Monica Aubrey, 55, said they were sexually molested by Lammers and by nuns.

Aubrey accused two nuns who were previously named in the lawsuit Mary Camilla Donahue and Mary Ann Powers and are now deceased.

Ferguson also accused a "Sister Mary." Sisters of Charity spokeswoman Barbara Qualls said the name was common for nuns and she couldn't identify her. Ferguson also alleged that she reported to the "Mother Superior" that she witnessed Lammers rape a young girl, and that the superior called her a liar and locked her in a closet.

Another plaintiff, Phyllis Kelly, 49, said she was molested by nuns working at two schools in the 1960s and 1970s.

She said she was abused by a Sister Caroline Mary Schneider, who worked at Most Blessed Sacrament, a parish school. She also alleged she was abused by a Sister Mary Jane and a Sister Jean, who worked at Presentation Academy.

Qualls confirmed that there were nuns with these names at the schools at the time. Schneider has died, while the other two are still living, she said.

 
 

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