Allentown Diocese Asks Court to Throw out Abuse Victim's Lawsuit
By Peter Hall
October 10, 2018
|The Diocese of Allentown has asked a Lehigh County judge to throw out the lawsuit by priest sex abuse victim Juliann Bortz, who alleges the diocese engaged in a defamatory effort to discredit her after she accused a priest of molesting her. (Madeleine Cook / THE MORNING CALL)|
The Allentown Diocese has asked a Lehigh County Court to throw out a lawsuit by a woman — described as a victim in Pennsylvania’s grand jury report on sexual abuse by clergy — who claimed the diocese engaged in a defamatory smear campaign after she reported being abused by a priest.
Juliann Bortz sued the diocese last month after the grand jury report revealed that diocesan officials, including Bishop Alfred Schlert, engaged in an effort to gather “irrelevant, unrelated [or] false ‘dirt,’” on Bortz to discredit her reports of abuse by the Rev. Francis Fromholzer in the 1960s.
The suit alleges defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress by the diocese. Bortz is seeking an apology and a waiver of attorney-client privilege by the diocese to allow its former attorney to testify about who directed the effort to discredit her. She will pursue monetary damages only if the church refuses her request, attorney Benjamin Andreozzi said last month.
The diocese filed papers Wednesday asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, raising objections about the legal sufficiency of Bortz’s claims.
In its filing, the diocese argues Bortz’s lawsuit fails to plead key elements of a defamation claim — specifically that the diocese published the information or that Bortz was harmed by its publication.
To the extent that the information about Bortz was shared among people within the diocese, they were entitled to do because it involved matters in which officials of the church shared an interest, the diocese argues.
The diocese also argues that the information about Bortz remained in the diocese’s files until it was published as part of the grand jury report. The diocese notes that it provided the information to the grand jury in response to a subpoena.
With regard to Bortz’s claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the diocese argues that she failed to provide proof supported by medical evidence.
It is unclear who will decide the diocese’s request. Lehigh County Judge Brian Johnson recused himself from the case last month without stating a reason. According to court records, no new judge has been assigned.
The grand jury report, released in August with the name of some accused priests blacked out, described the abuse of more than 1,000 children by 301 priests spanning several decades in six Pennsylvania dioceses, including Allentown.
Bortz and another unidentified woman testified before the grand jury about being sexually abused by Fromholzer in 1964 or 1965, when they were freshmen at Allentown Central Catholic High School. Fromholzer was a religion teacher there from 1959 to 1965, according to the report.
Bortz tried to report the abuse to other priests in the 1980s, the suit says.
After the Boston Globe published its Spotlight investigation of sexual abuse by clergy in the Boston Archdiocese in 2002, Bortz met with Allentown Diocese officials. Even as Bortz recounted Fromholzer's assaults, an outside attorney for the diocese, Tom Traud, gathered discrediting information about Bortz and shared it with Schlert, then vicar general under Bishop Edward Cullen, and Monsignor Gerald Gobitas, the grand jury report says.
According to the grand jury report, Traud gathered the information about Bortz from a woman who claimed to be a close high school friend of hers and who was related to the Rev. Leo Fink, founder of Allentown Central Catholic. Among other things, she told the lawyer that Bortz had once been a go-go dancer. Traud reported the information in a September 2002 fax to Schlert and Gobitas, the report says.
The pattern of investigating Bortz continued through 2004, when she filed a civil lawsuit against the diocese, the report says.
Traud, who has worked as outside counsel for the diocese since the 1980s, was fired by Allentown City Council from his position as city solicitor because of information in the report.
The diocese said last month it did not solicit the information and denied investigating or attempting to discredit Bortz. The diocese’s statement says it never acted on the information and, after meeting with Bortz in 2002, removed the priest she accused from ministry. It added that law enforcement was already aware of Bortz’s allegations.
“Bishop Schlert has always viewed victims as sincere, dignified and extremely courageous for coming forward,” the statement said. “He has always treated them with respect, and always will. For those who suggest otherwise, nothing could be further from the truth.”