A case revisited: 3 women vs. Erie diocese
By Ed Palattella
November 11, 2018
Former bishops challenged women’s accounts that they spoke up about a priest and child pornography. Grand jury report supports the women, though wounds run deep.
The grand jury report on the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, including the Catholic Diocese of Erie, has vindicated victims of child sexual abuse.
The report has also supported three women who once had strong connections to the church.
The women are not abuse victims.
They were, according to the grand jury report, whistleblowers in the Erie diocese.
As the 884-page report, released in August, continues to reverberate — it prompted a response from Pope Francis and calls for changes in state legislation — the experience of the three women offers another example of the report’s wide-reaching effects.
For the victims, the report provides proof that their complaints of abuse by clergy, though unheeded for years, were valid.
“We have heard them,” the grand jurors, in their report, said of the victims.
For the three women — Sally Beres, Ann Caro and Helen Rusnak— the report provides more public affirmation that, nearly 40 years ago, they acted appropriately when they expressed concerns about a priest.
The three said they alerted the Catholic Diocese of Erie to child pornography and other pornography found in the early 1980s in the office of the Rev. Robert F. Bower, of Edinboro — only to have the diocese reject their concerns and later publicly dispute that they had even raised them.
The ramifications were lasting. Beres said she lost her job as a church secretary, and she and Caro and Rusnak said they were ostracized for speaking up about Bower. All three said they remain estranged from the church they embraced for much of their lives.
“I lost my religion,” Beres, 70, said in a recent interview.
As the women grew disheartened, the Catholic Diocese of Erie let Bower remain a priest, even after he was charged with — but never prosecuted for — having child pornography on his computer in 1999.
In August, when it released its report, the grand jury did not equivocate about Bower.
The report named him as one of 41 “predator priests” who served in the 13-county Catholic Diocese of Erie since the 1940s.
As part of its investigation, which the state Attorney General’s Office conducted, the grand jury heard testimony and received information from the three women. Bower, the grand jury said, “was found to have collected child pornography” in 1981.
The grand jury, according to its report, “found the witnesses to be credible.”
The grand jury had more evidence against Bower, now 85, who testified before the panel.
“It was Bower’s own testimony, however, that most disturbed the Grand Jury,” according to the report. “When the attorney for the Commonwealth asked Bower if he had ever had sexual contact with a child under the age of eighteen, Bower answered, ‘What am I supposed to say?’
“When the prosecutor persisted, Bower added, ‘I’ll go to jail.’”
The Erie Times-News first reported on the actions of Beres, Caro and Rusnak in April 2002, as the clergy abuse crisis exploded across the country starting in Boston.
In the Catholic Diocese of Erie, the case of Bower, a priest since 1959, stood out in 2002: He had been charged with possessing child pornography on his computer in 1999 but had remained a priest. Erie County District Attorney Brad Foulk, now deceased, dropped the case in 2001, citing problems with how investigators had handled computer evidence. The state police said in the criminal complaint that Bower admitted to downloading the pornography.
After the dismissal of the case, Erie Catholic Bishop Donald Trautman, now retired, removed Bower from administrative leave, which he had been on since the filing of the charges. Bower returned to saying Mass at the Newman Center for Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.
In researching Bower’s case, in 2002, the Erie Times-News learned that the three women — Beres, Caro and Rusnak — had said they had raised concerns about Bower in 1982, when Beres worked as a secretary at the Newman Center.
In a story published in April 2002, the three said they and others found child pornography and other pornography in Bower’s office in 1982. They detailed how they met with the Erie Catholic bishop at the time, Michael J. Murphy, and told him they did not want to get Bower in trouble, but hoped that he could get help.
The women said they brought the pornographic materials to the bishop’s office, but Murphy refused to review them.
“He just said, ‘We cannot let this get out,’” Beres said in the 2002 article.
“He refused to look at anything,” Caro, now 84, said in the article. “He lectured us on love and what it means to love.”
According to the grand jury’s summary of the meeting, which it said happened in 1981, “Murphy preached to them and made them feel guilty to the point that they left the meeting in tears. They were told they were destroying Bower and the Church.”
Two days after the meeting with Murphy, Beres was fired from her job as the secretary at the Newman Center.
“I was devastated,” Beres said in the 2002 article. “Not only financially, but psychologically.”
Suing the church
The 2002 article upset Trautman, the bishop from 1990 to 2012. He wrote a letter to the editor in which he decried the Erie Times-News and challenged what Beres and the other women had said in the article.
Trautman noted that Murphy had told the Erie Times-News that he did not recall meeting with the women in 1982. Murphy died in 2007 at 91.
“The impression created by this one-sided prejudicial treatment,” Trautman wrote, “says the Diocese of Erie in the person of Bishop Michael J. Murphy fired a woman who was a whistleblower. There is no evidence to support such an outrageous claim.”
Trautman also wrote that, after the newspaper article ran, he “met with Rev. Bower to discuss the entire situation. Given recent publicity, he decided to resign from the priesthood. It should be noted there are no criminal charges filed against him.”
The letter upset Beres, Caro and Rusnak. They said Trautman characterized them as liars. In April 2003, they sued Trautman, Murphy and the Catholic Diocese of Erie for defamation.
The women lost the case. Erie County Judge William R. Cunningham in September 2003 dismissed the suit, saying that the statements of Murphy and Trautman did not rise to the level of defamation, though he said Trautman’s statements were “unnecessarily harsh.”
The state Superior Court affirmed the dismissal of the case in 2004. That is where the allegations involving Bower stood — until this year.
Seeking the truth
Even before the grand jury report came out on Aug. 14, the Catholic Diocese of Erie had labeled Bower unfit to be a priest and a danger to children.
In April, Bower was on the list that Bishop Lawrence Persico, Trautman’s successor, released of clergy and laypeople in the diocese who had been credibly accused of child sexual abuse or other improper behavior with minors.
The accusations, Persico said, prohibit those on the list from working with children in the diocese. Bower is listed as forbidden to function as a priest.
The grand jury report, using the testimony of Beres, Caro and Rusnak, among others, further labeled Bower — as a predator priest.
The women said the Attorney General’s Office contacted them about testifying before the grand jury. Beres and Caro, who still live in Erie County, testified in person, in Pittsburgh, in 2016. Rusnak, 75, who now lives in California, said she provided information in a telephone interview with an investigator with the attorney general’s office.
The grand jury’s findings, they said, show that they were correct to be concerned about Bower and that they expressed those concerns to the diocese.
“I am truthful,” Beres said. “I was being truthful to the point of being brutal.”
“We have gone through an emotional roller coaster,” Caro said. “We have been shunned. We have been criticized. I am a good person, and I don’t want this to continue. It is time for people to open their eyes.”
With the grand jury report, “it is all known now,” Rusnak said. “Thank goodness it has come out after all these years. I am sure we all feel somewhat relieved. They just need to face it publicly.”
Trautman, 82, said he stands by how he handled the Bower case, including what he said about the women in the letter to the editor. He said the dismissal of the defamation case supports him.
“The judgments of those courts stand,” Trautman said. “I can’t add anything else. You may have people who might not want to accept the reality. The courts have spoken.”
Bower, who still lives in Edinboro, said that he did not remember testifying before the grand jury.
“My memory’s going,” he said.
He was asked whether he told the grand jury that he was concerned about going to jail.
“I didn’t know I said anything to the grand jury,” Bower said.
He was asked whether he wanted to comment for this story.
“I want nothing to do with it,” Bower said.
The grand jury report, built on testimony presented under oath, sided with the three women and against Bower. But Caro said vindication has not yet arrived.
“Until this is settled,” she said, “and we get an apology, and the right kind of apology, I can’t feel vindicated.”
Whatever happens, Beres said, she will never be able to regain the faith that she said abandoned her after she stepped forward.
Before the Bower ordeal, “I was a good Catholic,” she said. “I went to church every day. I did everything.”
“I feel I was wronged,” Beres said. “They ruined my life. I can never trust the church again.”