Church Had to Battle Sex-Addicted Priest for Years
Rev. Soderlund's Long Fight with the Allentown Diocese Reveals Difficulty in Disciplining a Clergy Member Accused of Abuse
By Elliot Grossman
Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
March 10, 2002
The Rev. David Soderlund had a problem: He was sexually addicted to children.
In 1980, after having sexual contact with a boy, church officials sent the Carbon County pastor for counseling. Then they transferred him to another parish.
But in 1989, the Catholic Diocese of Allentown decided Soderlund remained a threat. Former Bishop Thomas Welsh, as head of the diocese, removed Soderlund from what would be his last church job -- at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Pottsville.
Until 1997, the Soderlund matter remained a diocesan secret. But when Soderlund sued Welsh and the diocese in Lehigh County Court, alleging he had been treated unfairly, the episode became public.
Soderlund's case, which eventually reached the Vatican, serves as one example of what can happen to a priest accused of sexual abuse.
Two weeks ago, the Allentown Diocese announced that four unidentified priests were removed from their posts last month because of sexual misconduct more than 20 years ago. The announcement followed the suspension of nine priests in the Boston area suspected of abusing children and similar actions across the nation.
Because the Catholic Church operates largely behind closed doors, it is difficult to know how the Soderlund matter compares with that of other priests with sexual abuse problems.
And since Allentown Bishop Edward Cullen took over four years ago, the diocese has adopted a policy addressing sexual misconduct. If allegations were substantiated now, diocesan spokesman Matt Kerr said, the priest would never receive another assignment in the diocese. In addition, law enforcement authorities would be notified.
"This is all to maximize the protection of the children," Kerr said. The diocese declined to release the written policy.
In court papers and in a 1997 interview, Soderlund admitted having a sexual addiction. But he alleged he was denied due process -- a fair hearing -- before Welsh removed him. Soderlund could not be reached for comment last week.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit, not on its merits but because the First Amendment prohibits courts from meddling in religious matters.
The public record of the Soderlund affair begins in 1980, when he was pastor at St. Joseph's Parish in Summit Hill. Soderlund had unspecified sexual contact with a 13-year-old boy.
Soderlund was sent for therapy to St. John Vianney Center in Downingtown, Chester County. Affiliated with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the residential center provides psychological help for members of the clergy.
There is no indication in the record that Soderlund sexually abused anyone else.
Soderlund was released from St. John in September 1980 and assigned, as pastor, to Our Lady of Hungary Church in Northampton. Ten months later, he was transferred to St. Catherine of Siena in Mount Penn, Berks County.
In October 1986, the diocese transferred him once more, to Good Samaritan as the chaplain and director of pastoral care. Personnel records indicate he performed satisfactorily until January 1989, according to Gino Pazzaglini, the hospital's president.
But then Soderlund had contact with a youth. Even though the contact was not sexual, it violated a condition of Soderlund's employment, according to Pazzaglini, who arrived after Soderlund had left. Soderlund was not supposed to have any contact with children.
A nun at the hospital learned about the contact, and Soderlund was reported to diocesan leaders.
Soderlund was dismissed because he was assisted at Mass by an altar server and had a long telephone call with the boy, according to Monsignor Anthony Muntone, then the diocese's second in command, speaking in 1997.
In the 1997 interview, Soderlund said he did not recall a prohibition on contacting altar servers. He said he believed that, before being assigned to the hospital, he was told only not to visit the hospital's pediatric unit.
Welsh tried to find another job for Soderlund but failed because there are few jobs where priests have no contact with children, according to Muntone. Soderlund could not be assigned to a diocesan job, Muntone said in a court document, "without endangering those who may be placed in his care."
In a February 1989 letter, Welsh placed Soderlund on administrative leave, promising to continue paying Soderlund's medical insurance but not to provide housing. Soderlund would get $250 a month in sick pay for three months with an option to extend the leave.
Soderlund, who had been in therapy for years, would have to continue the therapy, Welsh wrote back then, and make periodic reports about his mental health to diocesan leaders.
"You should conduct yourself during the leave in a manner befitting one who has been ordained to the priesthood," Welsh said. "Your employment should be in accord with your status as a Christian and priest."
Soderlund called his 1980 removal from St. Joseph's "suitable and just punishment." But it was his removal from Good Samaritan years later that bothered him.
He believed Welsh had violated the Code of Canon Law, which governs the Roman Catholic Church. Soderlund would accuse Welsh of violating so many parts of the code that it seemed Soderlund believed Welsh had ignored the code entirely.
The Sacred Congregation of the Clergy in Rome, a Vatican tribunal, reviewed Welsh's decision and concluded that Welsh had indeed violated Soderlund's rights. In a January 1990 letter, the tribunal said the bishop had imposed penalties on Soderlund without due process. The tribunal told Welsh to restore Soderlund's full salary and provide housing.
"The congregation appreciates the difficulty under which Your Excellency labors," a representative of the congregation wrote to Welsh, "but Father Soderlund labors under a psychic malady that is of long duration, one which began to manifest itself to him even in his childhood."
Initially, Welsh declined to accept the decision. He appealed to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature, the Vatican's highest court. The Supreme Tribunal ruled it could not consider the appeal because it was filed too late.
In December 1990, Welsh told Soderlund he would accept the Vatican's orders. Welsh said he had arranged for Soderlund to live at Holy Family Manor, a diocesan nursing home in west Bethlehem.
"Your residence at Holy Family Manor will ensure you have the necessary supervision to protect both yourself and the diocese from any legal actions due to your past history of sexual misconduct," Welsh wrote.
Welsh told Soderlund to celebrate Mass in his room without altar servers or a congregation.
But Soderlund remained dissatisfied with the outcome. He filed his lawsuit in April 1997.
Represented by Allentown lawyer Glenn McGogney, Soderlund listed point by point which sections of the Code of Canon Law he believed had been violated. Those sections included not being given a warning before being disciplined, not receiving a written notice of the allegations against him and being removed years after the statute of limitations had expired.
The bishop's alleged failure to follow due process deprived Soderlund of his ability to earn a living, according to the suit. Soderlund asked for more than $50,000 in compensation.
After filing the suit, Soderlund gave newspaper interviews. He said he had been in therapy for eight years after having sexual contact with the 13-year-old boy. And he said he was in a support group with two other priests who were sexually addicted to adolescents.
"It's an addiction. I'm a sex addict," he said. "Can I cure it? No. Can I manage it? Yes.
"I'm not at all proud of what I have done," he said. "I am proud of what I have done about it."
He said he declined the offer of $250 a month because it was not enough to support himself.
Like most judges who've dealt with church-related suits, Lehigh County Judge Edward Reibman declined to become involved in the church dispute.
"Such inquiries would plunge the court into the very heart of church policy, administration and governance," Reibman wrote. "The defendants, like those of any other religion, are free to select, retain, assign and discipline their ministers without the interference of the state."
The Pennsylvania Superior Court later upheld that decision.
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