Priest Sues Diocese, Claims Job Lost to 'Sex Addiction'
He Says He Was Fired for Having Contact with a Boy 9 Years Ago
By Elliot Grossman
Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
April 24, 1997
A priest who admits having a sexual addiction to teens has sued the Allentown Catholic Diocese for having him fired years after being disciplined and counseled for abusing a boy.
The Rev. David A. Soderlund, who lives in suburban Reading and no longer has a formal role in the diocese, filed the legal complaint last week in Lehigh County Court against the diocese and Bishop Thomas Welsh.
Soderlund alleges that the diocese failed to give him due process before placing him on the leave that resulted in his being without a church job. In a news release and interviews, diocesan leaders denied the allegations.
In an interview Wednesday, Soderlund said he continued periodic therapy for eight years after having sexual contact with a 13-year-old boy. And he said he is in a support group with two other priests who are sexually addicted to adolescents, meeting as recently as Wednesday.
"It's an addiction. I'm a sex addict," he said. "Can I cure it? No. Can I manage it? Yes."
He said he has not had sexual contact with a teen since the 1980 instance.
"I am not at all proud of what I have done," he said. "I am proud of what I have done about it."
He called himself a "standard bearer" in the fight to get Welsh and other American bishops to obey church law. Welsh and many other bishops violate church canons, including how they transfer pastors, he claimed.
Monsignor Anthony Muntone, the diocese's second-in-command, said bishops may occasionally violate church laws unintentionally, but affected individuals have appeal rights.
In the lawsuit, Soderlund said that in 1980, while serving as a pastor at St. Joseph's parish in Summit Hill, he had a sexual relationship with the boy. He was removed from the parish by the late Bishop Joseph McShea and underwent counseling at St. John's Villa in Downingtown, Chester County.
He was reassigned to Our Lady of Hungary Church in Northampton. The next year, he was transferred to St. Catharine of Siena parish in Mount Penn, Berks County.
And in 1986, he became director of pastoral care at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Pottsville.
But in 1989, he was relieved "without justifiable reasons," according to the lawsuit. The suit alleges that his dismissal was retaliation for his sexual misconduct nine years earlier.
But Muntone said Soderlund was dismissed because he was assisted by an altar server --typically children who help at Mass -- and had a long telephone call with the boy. Such contact violated conditions placed on Soderlund before the hospital hired him: to have no contact with children and to not use altar servers, according to Muntone.
In the interview, Soderlund said he does not recall a prohibition on altar servers. He said that before being assigned to the hospital, he was told to not visit the hospital's pediatric unit.
He said he was given "frivolous reasons" for being put on administrative leave, including telling off-color jokes.
He said he believes a senior nun of the order that staffs the hospital found out about the 1980 misconduct and insisted he be removed from the hospital.
According to Muntone, Welsh tried to arrange another job for Soderlund but failed because there are few jobs where priests have no contact with children.
"There's just no way the bishop can give him what he wants -- another assignment," Muntone said.
Between the time he left the hospital and the filing of the suit, the diocese and Soderlund appealed decisions to church appellate bodies in Rome. They also tried to negotiate a resolution of the dispute.
The suit alleges that the diocese and Welsh violated a series of church laws, known as canons, including:
*The church's statute of limitations by firing Soderlund nine years after committing an offense.
*The church's prohibition against double jeopardy: punishment two times for the same offense.
*Failing to give Soderlund due process by hearing all his appeals.
*Improperly allowing the bishop to conduct his own investigation and act as the judge.
*Failing to inform Soderlund in writing of the specific allegations against him.
The two sides differ about specifically what happened during the church appellate process after the bishop placed Soderlund on leave.
But they do agree that the issue went to the Congregation of the Clergy, an appellate body at the Vatican in Rome.
And they agree that after the appeals, Welsh offered Soderlund housing and a salary but no job, an offer Soderlund declined.
Soderlund said he would have been paid only $ 250 a month, not enough to support himself.
Soderlund, who has worked in Reading area stores since leaving the hospital, did not ask to be reinstated but to be compensated an unspecified amount.
"They don't trust me and I don't trust them," he said. "How do you serve under the circumstances?"
In the news release, Monsignor David Morrison, the diocese's church law expert, said the bishop has an obligation to make assignments based on an individual's qualifications.
"The bishop acted in this long and complex process with a determination to find a solution to Father Soderlund's situation that would comply with the law of the church," Morrison said. "This law requires the bishop to avoid doing anything that would bring spiritual harm or scandal to the people of God."
Muntone said he believes a judge won't hear the case because of the First Amendment's provision protecting religious freedom.
But Glenn McGogney, Soderlund's attorney, said courts do hear such cases after religious institutions exhaust their own internal quasi-judicial procedures.
Muntone said the suit is motivated by an intent to embarrass the bishop and the diocese.
"He's so angry he doesn't care about any embarrassment to himself," Muntone said.
CORRECTION-DATE: April 25, 1997, Friday
A photo caption in some editions Thursday incorrectly stated when the Rev. David Soderlund had a sexual relationship with a boy. Soderlund admits -- and the Allentown Catholic Diocese does not dispute -- that he abused the boy 17 years ago.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.