Molestation Suit Settled with Church
Priest's Attorney Says Agreement Robs Client of Day in Court
By Ann Rodgers-Melnick
October 1, 1993
A man who says he was repeatedly molested by a Catholic priest has reached a pretrial settlement with the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, but the priest's attorney said he was disappointed to lose the chance to clear his client's name.
As a result of the settlement, Timothy Bendig, 24, of Green Tree dropped his lawsuit yesterday against the Rev. Anthony Cipolla, the diocese and all other defendants.
Cipolla's attorney said the diocese and plaintiff had reached the settlement behind his back and that he had wanted a trial. Cipolla has insisted that all the accusations were lies and that Bishop Donald W. Wuerl railroaded him to avoid liability.
The amount and terms of the settlement are not public.
The case has drawn national attention in the Roman Catholic Church because the Vatican's highest court in March ordered Wuerl to reinstate Cipolla to ministry. Wuerl had barred Cipolla from ministry after Bendig sued in November 1988.
The Vatican court said Wuerl had misused a canon law concerning mentally ill priests and that he had not followed proper procedure for removing a priest from ministry. Wuerl said that the Vatican ruling was based on "factual inaccuracies" and petitioned for a rehearing. The ban on Cipolla's ministry remains in force.
Bendig, who says he was molested as a teen-ager, was satisfied with the resolution of the lawsuit.
"It's been exhausting. It's been a long journey, but it's over," said Bendig, a former altar boy. He once longed to become a priest, but dropped out of seminary after a few months. He is unemployed and has been undergoing psychotherapy for severe emotional and social problems he says are rooted in the molestation.
"It's a satisfactory settlement that will enable me to continue with better therapy and treatment," he said.
The worst aspect of the molestation was betrayal of trust, he said.
"He had to gain my trust first, before the sexual abuse started. And that extended to my family. My family trusted him."
Cipolla was betrayed by the settlement, said his attorney, John Conte of Conway.
"We have over 70 people, the majority of them were altar boys, who were prepared to testify to Father's characteristics. They were alone with him, they went on trips with him, and at no time did he in any way suggest or do anything that was not involved with priestly duties. People from way out of town were willing to come in at their own expense. They feel betrayed that they cannot go ahead."
Cipolla learned of the settlement yesterday, Conte said.
"He showed altruistic feelings. Win, lose or draw in court, his image has already been damaged. He thought that, as far as the church is concerned, it was better that it ended this way."
Cipolla, 50, was best known for his volunteer work promoting devotion to the late Italian mystic and healer, Padre Pio.
The suit contended that Cipolla began the sexual abuse in 1982 when Cipolla was an assistant priest and Bendig was a 13-year-old parishioner at St. Canice parish in Knoxville. It continued through several assignment changes until 1986, when Cipolla was chaplain at the McGuire Memorial Home for Exceptional Children in New Brighton, Beaver County.
Bendig believes diocesan officials knew Cipolla was a child molester because in July 1978, Cipolla was arrested for molesting a 9-year-old boy. The mother dropped the charges a month later.
The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, said he did not know why the decision was made to settle the case.
Bendig's attorney, Douglas Yauger, said he had located the family that reported Cipolla to the police in 1978.
"Without revealing too much of the plaintiff's strategy, it would have been our desire to have those people testify for whatever evidentiary value they would have," he said. No member of that family was involved in the settlement, he said.
Nationally, settlements in cases such as this start at around $ 500,000 and may go as high as $ 3 million if an annuity is part of the settlement, said Jason Berry, a New Orleans journalist who is an expert on pedophilia cases involving Catholic priests.
Although his case is still pending at the Vatican, Cipolla is seeking an assignment in another diocese or a religious order, Conte said.
The priesthood "is his calling, and he wants to fulfill his calling regardless of the stigma people have attached to him."
Cipolla cannot move unless the bishop or superior who wants him first asks and obtains permission from Wuerl, Lengwin said.
"It is our policy in matters like this to explain to any other diocese where a priest might be seeking (assignment) any information such as the allegations made against Father Cipolla. We would simply inform them of all that we know. That bishop would have to make a prudential judgment."
Asked whether the bishop believes Cipolla is a child molester, Lengwin replied, "I don't think that is an appropriate question. We don't make those kinds of decisions."
Cipolla's ability to join another diocese or religious order will hinge on the Vatican court's decision, said Nick Cafardi, a canon and civil lawyer who is dean of the law school at Duquesne University.
If the Vatican ultimately agrees with Wuerl that Cipolla has a mental health problem that disqualifies him from ministry, "then as long as that (mental health) condition exists, he would be impeded from the exercise of his ministry," Cafardi said.
The settlement should not affect the Vatican court because its earlier decision to reinstate Cipolla had nothing to do with whether he was a child molester, said Charles Wilson, executive director of the St. Joseph Foundation in San Antonio, which has been helping Cipolla with his appeal to Rome.
"Rome dealt exclusively with the issue of due process, or the lack of it, in Father Cipolla's suspension by Bishop Wuerl. Even if there were proof that the case in 1978 and the case involving Tim Bendig were true, it would not affect the case (at the Vatican)," Wilson said.
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