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  Morganelli Asks for Ousted Priests' Names
Northampton DA Says He Wants to Decide If They Can Be Charged

By Christine Schiavo
Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
April 11, 2002

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli has asked the Allentown Catholic Diocese for the names of priests recently dismissed for alleged sexual abuse.

The diocese agreed to a meeting with Morganelli, but its spokesman, Matt Kerr, said he didn't know what would be discussed. In a letter Wednesday to the diocese's attorney, Thomas Traud of Allentown, Morganelli asked for the names of the dismissed priests, the names of their victims, the dates and locations of the alleged abuses and details of the allegations.

Following the leads of district attorneys in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, St. Louis and other cities, Morganelli is the only district attorney in the five-county Allentown Diocese to push for the information.

"I just think that it's important for me to determine if there were any offenses that occurred in Northampton County and whether any of the offenses are prosecutable or not," he said.

The diocese, which covers Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, Carbon and Schuylkill counties, has dismissed at least eight priests for sexual abuse in the past 15 years.

In February, Bishop Edward P. Cullen dismissed four priests for incidents that allegedly occurred more than 20 years ago. In 2000, he dismissed a priest for similar allegations. In a Feb. 26 news release, the diocese said the names of the priests were not turned over to authorities because the statute of limitations on those cases had run out.

On Monday, the diocese remained firm in its decision to keep the names confidential.

"We are no way, at any time" releasing the names, Kerr said, adding that the diocese was committed to protecting the privacy of the victims.

On Thursday, he said the diocese's position had not changed.

In the 1980s and 1990s, sexual abuse allegations surfaced against four other diocesan priests, two of whom were prosecuted and received probation for their crimes. Kerr said three of those priests were dismissed before Cullen became head of the diocese in 1998. He would not say what happened to the fourth.

The recent round of dismissals came amid public outrage over the handling of sexual abuse cases by the Boston Archdiocese, which shuffled one pedophile priest from parish to parish. Since January, more than 100 priests have been dismissed from dioceses across the country as the Catholic Church cleans house. Boston turned over the names of 80 suspected priests. Officials from the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which dismissed 35 priests, is expected to meet with that city's district attorney this week.

No date has been set for the meeting between Morganelli and the Allentown Diocese, but Morganelli said he expects it to occur within two weeks.

Asked Monday if he would push for the names, Morganelli said he wasn't sure how to proceed because no victim had brought a charge against a priest in Northampton County.

Morganelli said he talked to Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham about the situation Wednesday and noted that he has been tracking how other district attorneys are handling the cases. One in Long Island, N.Y., for example, has asked for a grand jury investigation.

In deciding to seek the information, Morganelli said, "I don't think I can close my eyes to it and hope that there wasn't any abuse in Northampton County. I want to be able to make that determination."

Lehigh County District Attorney James B. Martin, Berks County District Attorney Mark Baldwin, Carbon County District Attorney Gary Dobias and Schuylkill County District Attorney Frank R. Cori did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

In February, Martin said the diocese told him none of the cases occurred in Lehigh County. He noted then that when abuse takes place in childhood, a complaint has to be lodged within five years of the victim's 18th birthday.

Kerr said that in the four years since Cullen established a policy on sexual misconduct, no new incidents have surfaced. Under that policy, the diocese would investigate allegations and report credible ones to police.

In the past, cases have surfaced when victims filed complaints with police or lawsuits in court.

In 1988, the Rev. Thomas Bender pleaded guilty to molesting a teenage boy in Berks County and was given seven years' probation. The boy claimed that the abuse started when he was 9 in Schuylkill County and continued for seven years.

In 1994, the Rev. James Mihalak was given two years' probation for an indecent assault against a 17-year-old boy in Schuylkill County.

Kerr noted that both Bender and Mihalak were dismissed from their ministries after their court cases.

In 1980, the Rev. David Soderlund allegedly had sexual contact with a boy in Carbon County. He was dismissed in 1989 by Bishop Thomas J. Welsh who then led the diocese. Soderlund revealed the details in a 1997 federal lawsuit in which he claimed Welsh denied him due process. The court dismissed the case.

In 1994, a 20-year-old man filed a lawsuit against the Rev. Joseph Rock claiming that the priest had molested him in Mount Carbon, Schuylkill County, from the time he was 9 until he was 12. Rock denied the allegation. No criminal charges were filed.

Kerr would not say if Rock has been dismissed.

 
 

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