Lancaster Co. Clergy Abuse Victim: My Report Wasn't Passed on
By Brandie Kessler
York Daily Record
December 9, 2016
For 25 years, Sharon Tell didn't know why she got no response after reporting she had been sexually abused by a priest.
As an adult, she told a priest at a Lancaster County church that a priest in the Allentown diocese had abused her for two decades, beginning when she was 12. Although Tell eventually notified the Allentown diocese herself, she said she never heard from anyone in the Harrisburg diocese, which oversees churches in Lancaster County.
A York Daily Record investigation published in August offered a clue about what might have happened, said Tell's son, Patrick Conlin.
The article detailed accusations of sexual abuse against 15 priests with ties to the Harrisburg diocese. Among them was William Geiger, who was at Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Ephrata when Tell disclosed her abuse.
A light bulb went off. Tell said Geiger, whose name she had forgotten over time, was the priest she told of her abuse. Conlin said the family now believes that Geiger didn't pass along Tell's report because he was allegedly an abuser.
“We had no idea there was this link until we read about it,” Conlin said.
Making that connection has been helpful, Conlin said. But now he and his mother wonder who else might have reported alleged abuse, either to Geiger or to other priests, that hasn't been passed along.
Msgr. James McHale seemed to have a lot of power and influence, Tell recalled.
McHale befriended Tell's mother when she was 10 years old. Tell’s family attended a church in the Allentown diocese where McHale was the parish priest.
McHale, who died in 1997, started sexually abusing Tell when she was 12, she said.
He would stay at her family’s home and at night, after she was in bed, he would go into her bedroom and lie in bed with her. He started by touching her over her pajamas, and he would put her hands on his genitals.
Tell pretended she was asleep, afraid to let McHale know she was awake and aware.
McHale went on vacations with Tell’s family and took them to Rome in 1972. They met Pope Paul VI. At the time of the trip, McHale had been abusing her for years.
She tried to block out the abuse.
“People would say to me (later), ‘So why didn’t you stop him? Why didn’t you tell somebody?’” said Tell, of Manor Township. “I just closed my eyes and pretended, waited for it to be over. ...I didn’t know what to say. Like who would believe me? Who am I going to tell?”
The abuse escalated to include intercourse when she was 18. Tell believed McHale wouldn’t like her if she didn’t do what he wanted, she said.
About twice a week, McHale would continue this abuse, until 1984, when Tell was 32. By then, she was married and had children.
No one knew.
Katherine van Wormer, a sociologist and professor of social work at the University of Northern Iowa, has studied traumatic bonding -- what happens when an abuser has power over his victim during ongoing abuse.
“The psychological effect goes on and on and on,” van Wormer said. “Before a person is ready to turn (the abuser) in, a whole lot of time has passed.”
Although people on the outside might see it as willingness, van Wormer said, the victim feels powerless and goes numb and succumbs as a coping mechanism.
During the 20 years Tell was abused, she said, her personality split. One personality, “the numb one,” was able to grow up and function normally. The other, the one who experienced the abuse, is more emotional and remains the age she was when the abuse first happened.
Tell took her first steps toward healing when she went to a sexual assault center in Lancaster in the early 1980s. Eventually, Tell was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and, once prescribed medication, she was able to function much better.
She eventually confronted McHale, but he denied doing anything to her, she said.
The Allentown diocese declined to comment about allegations of abuse against McHale, but said, “Abuse of minors is a grave sin and a crime,” and that the church does not tolerate offenders.
The Harrisburg diocese did not respond to a question about Tell's claim about Geiger. But its attorney, Matt Haverstick, said abuse survivors should report abuse, even "if they think they reported it before and they didn't see any action."
In January 1991, while Tell was living with her children in Ephrata, she went to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, which was a block from her home. She doesn’t remember what motivated her but remembers what she told the priest.
“I told him the whole story, told him I was being abused by this priest, told him his name, told him pretty much what was going on,” Tell said. She asked him for help.
At the time, McHale was working in a parish that had a school. She was concerned for the children there.
The priest at Our Mother of Perpetual Help said he would pass her story along.
“He said, ‘Oh, this is wonderful. We have confirmation this Saturday, the bishop is coming and I will speak with him about it,’” Tell recalled.
When Tell didn’t hear back from the priest, she called him. He told her that she had told the proper people and should get on with her life, she recalled.
By 2016, Tell had forgotten that priest’s name.
That's when Conlin read the YDR’s report on accused priests. In it, the Harrisburg diocese said Geiger had worked at Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Ephrata from July 1987 to August 1993. The diocese said it had no record of a credible allegation against Geiger while he was assigned in the diocese. The YDR found a lawsuit filed in Ohio that accused Geiger of sexual abuse of a child in the 1970s.
When Conlin read the report, he was angry.
He marveled at how it took a news article for him and his mother to be able to piece things together.
The Catholic Church needs to be more forthcoming about abuse perpetrated by priests, Conlin said.
“People writing and talking about this stuff helps people figure out what went wrong,” Conlin said.
A grand jury investigation into six dioceses in Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg and Allentown, is underway. The Harrisburg diocese has not commented about the investigation because of the "secret and confidential nature of grand jury investigations," Haverstick has said. Tell said she has testified before the grand jury.
Conlin wants statute of limitations reform with a retroactive component so people such as his mother, for whom the statute has expired, can file a claim.
Tell said it’s important to keep talking about the abuse, because without some of the information she has now, she might still feel more alone.
“It just makes me so angry that the church that is supposed to be where people find comfort...allowed children to be abused,” Tell said. “How’s that supposed to be so kind and giving and loving, all the things a church is supposed to be?”
Msgr. James McHale's assignment history, from the Allentown diocese
Ordained May 14, 1960
Assistant Pastor. Sacred Heart, West Reading, 1960-1962
Assistant Pastor, Notre Dame of Bethlehem, 1962-1965
Director, Holy Family Manor, Bethlehem, 1965-1983
Director Holy Family Villa for Priests, Bethlehem 1974-1983
Pastor, St. Vincent de Paul, Minersville, 1983-1994
Pastor, Sacred Heart, Bath, 1994-1997
Died October 24, 1997
To report abuse
The Allentown diocese said anyone who knows of incidents of abuse should report to the State ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313, the attorney general’s hotline at 1-888-538-8541 or to local law enforcement.
To report abuse to the Harrisburg diocese, call the diocesan toll-free hotline at 1-800-626-1608 or email ReportAbuse@hbgdiocese.org
The Rev. William Geiger
In response to the York Daily Record's request for information priests with ties to the Diocese of Harrisburg who had been accused of sexual abuse, the diocese provided the following information:
William Geiger was assigned to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Ephrata from July 19, 1987, to Aug. 19, 1993, and from Aug. 19, 1999, to June 20, 2007, and to St. Anthony of Padua in Lancaster from April 19, 1994, to Aug. 20, 1999.
In 2002, court records show, attorney David Zoll filed a lawsuit against Geiger and another priest on behalf of three men who said the priests molested them when they were boys. The alleged abuse occurred in the 1970s at a church in Lima, Ohio, said Zoll, of Toledo. His clients settled with the diocese in 2004.
A Harrisburg diocese spokesman said the diocese did not have a record of a credible allegation against Geiger while he worked there. Geiger is dead.