|Sex-abuse Suits Target Desales Order
By Matt Birkbeck and Darryl R. Isherwood
The Morning Call
July 5, 2009
In fall 1984, a young seminarian was fulfilling a lifelong dream studying to become a priest at the Brisson Seminary in Center Valley.
But the dream quickly turned into a nightmare for the 18-year old, who told The Morning Call he was sexually assaulted by a priest at Brisson in January 1985.
The seminarian said he immediately reported it to seminary officials and to the Oblates of St. Francis DeSales, the religious order that operated the seminary.
The allegation came one month after the Diocese of Allentown, which sent students to study at the seminary, had begun an investigation of Brisson following a raucous ordination party in October 1984 that involved drunkenness and allegations of a sexual encounter between two priests.
''There were parties at night and priests dressed in drag. The place was a mess,'' said the former seminarian.
The Allentown Diocese removed its seminarians from Brisson in May 1985 and transferred them to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Montgomery County. Brisson's superior at the time, the Rev. Edward Fitzpatrick, was reassigned.
More than two decades after the diocese investigation, the oblates are defendants in nearly 30 lawsuits alleging that 10 priests had for years sexually abused students at oblate-run schools in Delaware and Pennsylvania. Three of the accused attended the Brisson seminary in the 1970s. None of the accused was at the seminary when the diocese launched its investigation in 1984.
Two former seminarians at Brisson who spoke to The Morning Call said the religious training there in the early to mid-1980s was overshadowed by a sordid, sexually permissive atmosphere that included harassment, inappropriate touching, suggestive and lewd comments, and sex among priests and seminarians. In one instance, an oblate priest placed his male companion -- a young adult not enrolled in the seminary -- in a room next door, where he lived for months, the seminarians said.
Brother Bernard Seif, a clinical psychologist and a former director at Brisson whose actions led to the transfer of the priest who allegedly assaulted the seminarian, confirmed the seminarian's account of the atmosphere at Brisson. And that the seminarian reported the alleged assault to him.
''Yes [the seminarian] did come to me and I took the appropriate action,'' Seif said.
Seif also said that the Allentown Diocese launched an investigation of Brisson, which led to the diocese severing its ties with the seminary in 1985.
''The sexual matters were only one of the reasons. There was also a turf war between the diocese and [oblates] over teachings at Brisson,'' said Seif, now a monk in Monroe County.
Kevin Nadolski, an oblate spokesman in Wilmington, Del., said in an e-mail that he ''didn't know of any investigation by the Allentown diocese into the Brisson seminary.''
Matt Kerr, the Allentown Diocese spokesman, acknowledged that diocesan seminarians were removed from Brisson, but said ''nobody in the current administration is aware of an investigation'' of the Brisson seminary in 1985.
''The diocesan seminarians were not returned to Brisson,'' Kerr said. ''The diocese thought our seminarians would be better prepared for the priesthood elsewhere.''
Monsignor Anthony Muntone, who in 1985 was vicar general of the Allentown Diocese, said in an interview he does not recall any specific allegations of sexual incidents at Brisson, but acknowledged that then-Bishop Thomas J. Welsh had an overall concern with Fitzpatrick, Brisson's superior, and the way the seminary was run.
''The operation at Brisson, as you know, was not our operation and I have a vague recollection of a dissatisfaction with [Fitzpatrick] in other areas -- his conduct as the rector,'' Muntone said. ''There had been concern about Fitzpatrick with orthodoxy, the celebration of Mass, those things definitely I have recollections of.''
Fitzpatrick, now with the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., said in an e-mail last week, ''I was never aware that my orthodoxy or approach to liturgy was in any way being questioned.''
The ''issues'' between him and the diocese were ''intellectual and philosophical, not moral,'' he said.
''It was clear to me in the early days of my term as superior that my vision was different from the one I was expected to implement, and I chose to resign a few months after I got there,'' he said in the e-mail.
As for the atmosphere at the seminary, Fitzpatrick said, ''During my eight-month tenure at Brisson, I never observed or heard complaints about 'sexual permissiveness.' If I did, I would have addressed this.''
He added, ''The only problem in the community that I remember was when I re-
arranged the furniture in the sanctuary of the chapel.''
Joseph Nines, a seminarian at Brisson from 1981 to 1986, said he was unaware of any sexual impropriety during that time but heard allegations about it from other seminarians a year after Fitzpatrick left.
''I was told about some things that went on then, such as sex between seminarians,'' Nines said.
Lawsuits allege the order shifted accused priests
The Delaware lawsuits allege that the order -- founded by French priest Louis Brisson in 1875 -- knowingly placed priests with ''dangerous propensities'' in oblate-run high schools, including three in Pennsylvania, and that the oblate hierarchy knew for years about allegations against their priests yet continued to place them in different schools.
If proven, plaintiffs' lawyers say the allegations could cost the oblates millions and force the order, which administers DeSales University in Center Valley, into bankruptcy.
''I believe the oblates have created and perpetuated a system that enables and protects child molesters,'' said J. Michael Reck, an attorney for several Delaware plaintiffs who works for the Los Angeles-based Manley Stuart, which successfully sued the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2007. ''The best example of this is the fact that we have dozens of credible cases of child abuse against priests that the oblates have failed to disclose as perpetrators and have protected for years.''
One lawsuit, filed June 18, alleges that the Rev. Gerald Dunne, a resident priest in a Philadelphia parish, abused a student in Delaware in the late 1970s. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia issued a written statement on the case June 22, saying Dunne -- who attended Brisson seminary in the 1970s -- had passed police- and child-abuse checks and received a ''positive recommendation and clearance from the oblates and had completed their accredited screening process.''
Dunne, who was teaching at a Philadelphia Catholic high school until last month, denied the allegation, according to a statement issued by the archdiocese. He has been placed on administrative leave at an oblate residence outside the city, the statement said.
In a news release, the Rev. James Greenfield, provincial (or leader) of the order's Wilmington-Philadelphia Province, said, ''If these allegations are true we will work to help the victim heal and we will apologize for the harm. Justice is essential to healing.''
Nadolski, the oblate spokesman, said that if found liable, the potential financial impact of the lawsuits on the order was unclear.
''That question may be premature,'' he said in an interview last month.
The Rev. Bernard O'Connor, president of DeSales University, said the college is a separate corporate entity that would not be affected by any lawsuits against the order. The college was founded by the oblates in 1965 and offers undergraduate and graduate degrees to about 2,500 students on a 400-acre campus.
Reck contends that all oblate properties and assets, including DeSales and three high schools in the Philadelphia area, would be at risk.
His firm was one of several representing 500 victims in Los Angeles, who were awarded $660 million for past abuses by priests there.
The lawsuits were among the many filed around the country earlier this decade against priests in several dioceses, including Boston, Chicago and Kansas City, Mo. Unlike most states, California responded to the scandal with legislation expanding the statute of limitations for civil cases involving abuse allegations. In 2007, the Delaware Legislature followed suit, opening a two-year window allowing claims there by past victims of sexual abuse.
To date, about 140 cases have been filed in Delaware against the Catholic Church and various religious orders, including up to 30 suits against the oblates. The window closes Thursday.
With more than 400 members worldwide, the Oblates of St. Francis DeSales are a religious order of priests and brothers divided into two provinces in the U.S. -- Wilmington and Toledo, Ohio -- each overseen by its own leader, or provincial. The oblates are an independent order that operates seven high schools in the U.S., including Father Judge and Northeast Catholic in Philadelphia and Archbishop Wood in Warminster, and one college, DeSales University, formerly Allentown College of St. Francis DeSales.
Most of the suits filed in Delaware allege rape and sexual abuse against former students at Salesianum High School in Wilmington during the 1970s and 1980s. But recent filings allege abuse in Philadelphia schools in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Two former students at Father Judge have filed suit against two oblate priests, the Rev. Dennis Killion and the late Rev. James McDevitt, accusing them of sexual abuse and the oblate order of ''gross negligence'' for knowing they were ''child molesters'' before placing them in the schools.
McDevitt also is named in a lawsuit filed last week by a former student alleging sexual abuse at Northeast Catholic.
Killion, who attended Brisson 1970-1974, is a defendant in 14 lawsuits, with many of the allegations stemming from his tenure at Salesianum during the 1980s.
In a letter released by Reck, then-Provincial Joseph G. Morrissey wrote in 2002 to an alleged victim that he had been ''generally appraised'' [sic] in 1996 of an ''incident'' involving Killion. Morrissey wrote that Killion reported to ''his counselor and me on a regular basis'' and that Killion's superiors ''are aware of the concerns that have been raised concerning Fr. Killion.''
Morrissey, who also attended Brisson in the 1970s, recommended Killion in 2005 for transfer from Father Judge to Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers, Fla., and certified that Killion was of ''good character and reputation'' and ''had nothing in his background that would render him unsuitable to work with minor children,'' according to a lawsuit filed June 25.
Fitzpatrick, the former Brisson superior whose leadership in the 1980s was questioned by the Allentown Diocese, was the oblates' personnel director in 2006 and also recommended Killion for transfer from Father Judge to Bishop Verot, according to the June 25 lawsuit.
Reck also released a second letter, written in April 2008, to the alleged victim, a Delaware law enforcement official, after the man had met with Greenfield, the current oblate provincial.
''While there are more than a few reasons for you to wonder about the appropriateness of how your complaints and concerns have been dealt with, from this point forward I feel that the two of us have cleared the air in matters concerning Fr. Killion,'' Greenfield wrote.
Three months later, Greenfield recommended Killion to Cardinal Justin Rigali, the archbishop of Philadelphia, for transfer from Bishop Verot to St. Bede's the Venerable Parish in Holland, Bucks County.
Rigali rescinded Killion's transfer a week later when the first lawsuit against Killion was filed Aug. 4, 2008, on behalf of four plaintiffs, including the Delaware man who met with Greenfield.
Killion was placed on administrative leave and assigned to an oblate retirement facility in Maryland, where he remains today, according to Nadolski, the oblate spokesman.
The Delaware man who filed the lawsuit under the name John MS Doe claimed that in 1985, when he was a 14-year-old freshman working a bingo game at Salesianum, Killion backed him into a dark corner and put his hand down his pants.
Nadolski, the oblates' spokesman, said in an interview that the ''incident'' the alleged victim reported to Greenfield and Morrissey amounted to ''sophomoric'' and ''inappropriate behavior, but not sexual abuse.''
''John MS Doe forwarded his concerns first to the state attorney general's office and they decided not to act on them,'' Nadolski said. ''Afterward, John MS Doe met with an attorney for the order, who informed [the order] that [the allegation] did not rise to the level of sexual abuse.''
The Delaware attorney general's office has declined to comment, saying it doesn't discuss claims. Doe said that office told him it couldn't prosecute because the statute of limitations -- which varies depending on the degree of sexual abuse -- had expired.
Reck said John MS Doe was ''absolutely sexually abused.''
''They knew it and they can call it what they want. But if someone touches your genitals, it's sexual abuse,'' Reck said.
Another student, Anthony Kramedas, who is listed by name as a plaintiff, alleges in the same lawsuit that he was assaulted by Killion during his four years at Salesianum from 1983 to 1987, and that one of the assaults took place in a confessional.
Killion, through the spokesman, said ''I completely deny the allegations of sexual misconduct. I am praying for my accusers and those affected by this and for a swift and just outcome.''
The former Brisson seminarian who alleged he was sexually assaulted in 1985 filed a lawsuit in April under the name John GR Doe alleging he also was abused by the Rev. Richard Grant at Salesianum 1981 to 1983.
John GR Doe could not file a lawsuit against the priest who allegedly attacked him at Brisson because the statute of limitations had expired in Pennsylvania.
In an interview with The Morning Call, John GR Doe said the ''culture'' at the seminary, along with the alleged assault, led him to leave a year later. Doe said he reported to two Brisson officials -- Seif and O'Connor, the current DeSales president -- that a priest used a key to enter his locked room in the middle of the night in January 1985 and performed oral sex on him.
Seif said Doe relayed that account to him immediately after the incident. Seif said he then asked the priest if he did what Doe claimed he had and that the priest said, 'yes.'
Seif said he reported the incident to then Provincial Richard T. Reece, who immediately transferred the priest. Contacted last week, Reece referred calls to the oblates' spokesman.
''I knew I had to take some action,'' said Seif, then Brisson's director of postulants.
Seif said O'Connor knew about the allegation and agreed that the priest had to be transferred.
O'Connor said in an e-mail response, ''In my role as assistant superior of Brisson Seminary, [John GR Doe] came to me with another seminary staff person to report an incident that troubled him. [Doe] never told me that he was sexually assaulted or abused. Had he done so, I would have called the police.''
Asked to be more specific, O'Connor, in a follow-up e-mail, said ''the troublesome event did have a sexual component.''
John GR Doe said he also told Greenfield, the oblates' current provincial who at the time was a seminarian who had completed his studies at Brisson. Doe said he met Greenfield at a Bennigan's in Wilmington shortly after the alleged assault and later, while walking on the grounds at Salesianum, told him about it.
Greenfield, in an e-mail response, said ''You are asking me to comment on a dinner that is said to have occurred a quarter of a century ago. Nevertheless, if someone told me that he or she was sexually abused, I would certainly remember. Such a conversation never occurred.''
The priest who allegedly assaulted John GR Doe has never been charged and is not named in a lawsuit. After his transfer from Brisson, he remained an oblate in good standing and had positions of responsibility within the order. He remains active in a diocese. Reached through the oblates' spokesman, he denied the allegation, saying, ''I have never sexually abused anyone. This is an outrage.''
Four months after the alleged assault, in May 1985, the diocese pulled its seminarians out of Brisson.
The loss of the diocese seminarians, who made up half the enrollment of 50 students, along with a growing lack of interest in the priesthood led to Brisson's closing in 1991. According to a Morning Call story in 1993, only three students remained when Brisson closed.
The Delaware lawsuits against the oblates aren't the first public allegations of abuse against the order. A 2005 grand jury investigation of abuse within the Catholic Church in Philadelphia resulted in criminal charges against the Rev. James J. Behan, an oblate who pleaded guilty to molesting a student at Northeast Catholic High School for Boys between 1978 and 1980. The report also named 63 priests as abusers, but none could be prosecuted because of Pennsylvania's 12-year statute of limitations on such crimes.
Behan, who was sentenced to 12 years' probation, also attended the Brisson seminary in the early 1970s. Because he left Pennsylvania after the assault, it stopped the clock on the statute of limitations until he returned.
The lawsuits involving allegations of abuse at the Philadelphia schools were filed in Delaware under the premise that the oblates knew of past allegations against Killion and McDevitt.
Legislation similar to Delaware's to suspend Pennsylvania's civil statute of limitations on sex abuse cases is under consideration in Harrisburg. But supporters of the bill say it continues to languish in the House Judiciary Committee amid what they say is heavy lobbying by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, a lobbying group for the Catholic Church.
''The church has lobbied very hard to make sure that this does not come out,'' said Rep. Louise Bishop, D-Philadelphia, a sponsor of the bill. She added that the church has come a long way in addressing the issue by providing counseling for victims and not opposing earlier bills that extended the statute of limitations for both criminal and civil sex abuse cases.
Rep. Thomas Caltigirone, D-Berks, the committee chairman, declined to comment. Calls to Caltigirone were returned by Bill Andring, counsel to the House Judiciary committee.
''This is clearly an effort aimed directly at the Catholic Church. I don't think there is any question about that,'' Andring said. ''What you don't see is any broad-based effort to do this across the board.''
Andring said he knows of no plans to move the bill forward in the judiciary committee.
Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said church lobbyists haven't approached her. She called the statute of limitations a ''loophole that protects pedophiles.''
''But when I talk to other legislators, they tell me the church doesn't want this bill to go anywhere,'' she said.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference opposes the bill because it eliminates the statute of limitations completely. ''As time passes, evidence becomes increasingly less available so it becomes more difficult to mount a fair defense,'' Amy Hill, the conference's spokeswoman said in an e-mail Wednesday.
Former state Rep. Lisa Bennington of Allegheny County, the original bill sponsor, said fighting Caltigirone, the church and the lobbyists eventually drove her from Harrisburg.
''I can actually blame the Catholic Church for why I'm not running for office again,'' said Bennington, a Democrat, who served just one term in the Legislature. ''The church has told legislators that if they back this bill, it will come out against them because they have tried to bankrupt the church. That's what I was up against.''
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