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  A Breach of Trust, a Test of Faith
In His Quest to Have a Priest Defrocked, a Sex Abuse Victim's Pleas to Catholic Church Leaders Went Unanswered for Nearly 20 Years. This Is the Story of One Child Abuse Case and Its Handling by the + Allentown Diocese from the Time of Its Founding Bishop until Today

By Christine Schiavo
Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
November 17, 2002

Sitting in his living room 20 years later, he tells a story that sounds almost cliched. He was an altar boy, molested by a priest.

But his story is about more than one child or one priest: It demonstrates how the Allentown Catholic Diocese has treated child abuse cases.

One bishop refused to meet with the victim's family, another insisted that his hands were tied and a third ultimately took action, although it was not what the family hoped it would be.

As in Boston and other dioceses, accused priests in some cases here were shuffled from parish to parish.

Through it all, the victim's faith has not wavered as his family has waged a 20-year fight to have a priest defrocked.

"I've waited 20 years for my church to do the right thing and they haven't," said the man, who did not want his name used. He remains a practicing Catholic and has had his child baptized in the faith.

At 33, he questions whether he and his family were right in not reporting the case to police.

"The church counted on us being secret," he said. "As much as they wanted this to be quiet, so did we."

It happened in 1982 when he was 12, at the rectory of St. Catharine of Siena in Mount Penn, Berks County. He remembers sobbing after the Rev. Michael S. Lawrence dropped him off from the "tutoring session."

"He was touching me," the boy told his parents hysterically.

They tried to calm him with hugs and assurances that everything would be all right. As he calmed down, his father left the room. The boy could hear him on the phone, angry and outraged as he told the pastor that if the church didn't take care of the situation, he would. Lawrence shouldn't be around children, the boy's father said. He shouldn't be a priest.

By morning, Lawrence's bags were packed. The family was told that he was sent out of the area for treatment.

One year later, however, Lawrence was back in parish life and soon to begin years of transfers that put him on assignments where he taught hundreds of children. He taught high school and Sunday school and lived for more than a dozen years in a rectory that overlooks an elementary school playground.

His placement wasn't unusual. The diocese did the same thing with the Rev. David Soderlund, who was assigned to the same church, St. Catharine in Mount Penn, in 1982 after being sent for psychological treatment for sexually abusing a Carbon County boy two years earlier. (Soderlund acknowledged the abuse in a 1997 court document.) A year after his experience with Lawrence, the Mount Penn boy had Soderlund as a religion teacher at St. Catharine. Nothing inappropriate occurred.

In nearby Bally in 1982, the Rev. Thomas Bender, then pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament parish, was molesting a teenage boy he met three years earlier while he was assigned to a Pottsville parish. That victim's family contended in a lawsuit -- settled out of court for an undisclosed sum -- that diocesan officials found out about the abuse in 1984 but didn't inform the boy's parents and didn't demote Bender from his position as pastor. Bender admitted abusing the boy in a 1988 criminal court case and was sentenced to seven years of probation. He is no longer an active priest.

In 1983, Lawrence was assistant pastor at St. Anthony of Padua in Easton. In 1984, two years after he was accused of molesting the Mount Penn boy, he was teaching high school in Bethlehem Township and from there was assigned to a Jim Thorpe parish where he also taught Sunday school.

He resided in at least one other parish that included an elementary school. And he was named to the Diocesan Tribunal, a Catholic Church court that is used to determine the validity of a marriage in annulment cases; it was an assignment the abused man's family viewed as prestigious. At the time, the tribunal was next to the parish elementary school of the Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena on 18th Street in Allentown.

The son of a Bethlehem Steel worker, Lawrence, 55, was born in Bethlehem and entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary on the Main Line in Montgomery County, near Philadelphia, in 1969. He was ordained in 1973 and assigned to a teaching position at Notre Dame High School in Bethlehem Township. He also served as regional coordinator of adult religious education in Northampton County. He taught at Central Catholic High School in Allentown in 1978 and resided at Holy Trinity parish in Whitehall Township while serving on the marriage tribunal the following year.

Lawrence was assigned to St. Catharine in Mount Penn in 1981. To the victim, the parish was like a second home. It's where he became an altar boy when he was in fifth grade and continued as one until he graduated from high school. Lawrence befriended him in the summer before he started seventh grade. The priest was a familiar face to parishioners at St. Catharine because he had taught religion at the adjoining elementary school a few years earlier.

Among his students was the victim's older brother, who remembered Lawrence as "a rotund, sweaty guy who used to get riled up by the kids." He recalled the priest dishing out written punishments to the whole class.

"He was not some diminutive type of priest," the brother said. "He made himself known."

The victim remembers him differently. He was pleasant and helpful and one day offered to tutor the boy in English, his worst subject.

After dinner one night in 1982, the boy met the priest at the rectory. They went to his bedroom, the only room that would offer the quiet and privacy needed to study, the boy remembers Lawrence saying.

There was little discussion about English.

"He asked me if I had any questions about sex," the victim recalled. "I was 12. Of course I had questions. He asked me to describe what was happening to my body. He told me to point to the parts of my body that were changing. I was uncomfortable and he said, "Think of this as a doctor's office."'

The victim remembers removing his underwear and sitting with his legs apart on the couch as Lawrence "examined" him. The boy squirmed as the priest fondled his genitals for a few minutes. At one point, Lawrence pressed so hard that the boy yelped in pain and accidentally urinated.

The priest jumped back and told the boy to get dressed. He drove him home, trying to make small talk during the 10-minute ride. The boy's stomach knotted.

"I knew as soon as he started touching me that this was wrong," he said. "But there were so many things going through my mind. He was a priest!"

As the boy was getting out of the car, Lawrence put his hand up for a high-five. "OK buddy, I'll see you later," he said as the boy slapped his hand.

The boy's parents were watching television in the living room when he walked in. The knot tightened in his stomach as his mother asked how the tutoring session went.

His eyes welled before he could answer. "What's wrong?" his mother asked as the boy sobbed out the details.

His father, on the phone with the pastor, the late Rev. Frederick Loeper, demanded that Lawrence be stripped of his collar.

"I let it be known what I wanted," the father said recently. "I wanted the guy kicked out."

In two decades, none of the three bishops took such action.

The boy's parents thought they were protecting their son by not reporting the abuse to police. That night, there was little they could do to comfort him.

They suggested a shower might make him feel better. He remembers standing under the warm water for a long time, trying to wash away the feeling of the priest's hands on his body.

The next day, his older brother took him on a bike ride through the winding countryside. Loeper, who had no authority to change Lawrence's assignment, arranged for the boy's father to meet that day with diocesan officials in Allentown.

The father expected to meet with Bishop Joseph McShea, the founding bishop of the Allentown Diocese. Instead, Monsignor Anthony Muntone, top administrator for McShea, handled the case.

At that meeting, church officials made no offer to provide counseling to the victim, his father said. Counseling is now required to be offered under the diocese's new policy. But in 1982, the diocese focused more on the priest and how the accusation was affecting him, the boy's father said. Muntone even asked the father to show compassion for Lawrence.

"That's the thing that tears me apart when they say now that they're concerned for the victim," the father said. "There never was one phone call from anyone from the diocese asking about my son."

For weeks after the incident was reported, the boy's father was in frequent contact with Muntone, demanding that Lawrence be defrocked. Only a bishop can reassign a priest or initiate, with the Vatican, the defrocking process. But it is difficult to defrock a priest and it is not required by church law in a child abuse case.

Reluctantly, the victim's father accepted the diocese's response.

"They inferred they were going to put him someplace where there were no kids," he said.

But a couple of years later, word reached St. Catharine in Mount Penn that Lawrence was saying Mass at a parish in Jim Thorpe and that he was teaching at a Catholic high school.

In June 1984, The Morning Call listed Lawrence as a professor pro tem at Notre Dame High School. Now-retired Bishop Thomas J. Welsh, who took over as head of the diocese from McShea in 1983, made Lawrence's appointment at the high school permanent in a 1984 diocesan announcement. But shortly after the announcement, Lawrence was named associate pastor at Immaculate Conception in Jim Thorpe. According to the Official Catholic Directory of the Diocese of Allentown, he did not return to Notre Dame.

His name appeared in the news again in 1986 when Welsh and McShea joined Lawrence for the dedication of a church in Kidder Township that was served by priests from the Jim Thorpe parish.

It is unclear when Welsh became aware of the accusation against Lawrence.

The news of Lawrence's new assignment made its way to Mount Penn, where the boy's father took it up with Loeper, then pastor at St. Catharine, who was sympathetic the night the family reported the abuse. It meant more calls to Muntone and more explanations from the monsignor about church law.

"I never thought this would happen," said the father, who grew up staunchly Catholic, raised his children the same way and continues to attend Mass every Sunday. "All the priests, they listened and then they did nothing."

Lawrence was associate pastor at Immaculate Conception in Jim Thorpe from 1984 to 1986. Longtime parishioner Claire Miller remembered his teaching her grandson at Sunday school.

"Father Lawrence is a great priest," she said. "He had compassion for people."

The Rev. Robert Quinn, who was pastor at Immaculate Conception in the early 1980s, called Lawrence a "marvelous" priest.

"He has a great love of the liturgy, a great empathy for people in general," said Quinn, who said he knew about the allegations against Lawrence. "He very sincerely is a good man."

The Mount Penn family wasn't aware of Lawrence's activities after the mid-1980s. The boy grew into a man, went to college, and tried to put the incident behind him.

News of Lawrence resurfaced in 1994 with a wedding announcement in a Berks County newspaper which mentioned Lawrence as the celebrant of a nuptial Mass.

This time the family reached out to the new pastor at St. Catharine in Mount Penn, Monsignor Joseph Smith. The family also was optimistic that unlike McShea, Welsh might take action. Smith arranged for the family to meet with the bishop and Muntone. Smith accompanied the victim, his father and his brother to the chancery in Allentown.

Even as the Mount Penn man told Bishop Welsh what happened to him and how troubled he was at the diocese's lack of action, he could see his comments falling on unsympathetic ears.

"We were frustrated that Father Lawrence had continued his priesthood essentially uninterrupted, being moved to different parishes and receiving promotions within the clergy without ever being punished for sexually molesting me," the victim told Welsh.

The bishop's response left the family more frustrated. There was no apology, no show of concern, the Mount Penn man said. Only indifference and impatience.

He said Welsh's demeanor throughout the meeting was "condescending and cool." He said, "He made it clear to us that there was nothing that could be done or that he was willing to do [to have the priest defrocked]."

He recalled Welsh saying, "My hands are tied. Once a priest, always a priest."

At the very least, they asked the bishop, keep Lawrence away from children and keep his name out of the diocesan newspaper.

While Welsh kept Lawrence in active ministry, he removed him from teaching and parish work. On Welsh's watch, Lawrence was sent to live at St. Paul's parish on Susquehanna Street in Allentown and to work on the Diocesan Tribunal. He didn't work directly with children again.

Like Immaculate Conception, St. Paul's had an adjoining elementary school. But Lawrence wasn't involved with the schoolchildren or with the altar servers. In an unusual setup, he lived at St. Paul's for 15 years but didn't celebrate Mass there.

The Rev. Luigi Palmieri, who lived at St. Paul's rectory for seven years with Lawrence, said it wasn't part of Lawrence's assignment to celebrate Mass at the parish. Instead, he had celebrated Mass since 1993 for the cloistered nuns at the Carmelite Monastery in Coopersburg.

"As far as I could see, he was a good priest," Palmieri said.

The Mount Penn victim married and had a child. But he was still bothered by lingering thoughts of the abuse. The memories came flooding back in January when news broke of a brewing scandal in Boston, where an abusive priest was shuffled from parish to parish.

Then one day while headlines raged about the Boston case, the Mount Penn victim opened the Allentown Diocese newspaper to find a mention of Lawrence working with the marriage tribunal. The article, combined with the rising voices of victims all over the country, incensed him and invigorated his quest to have the priest defrocked. He called Monsignor Smith, who contacted Bishop Edward P. Cullen, the third bishop to handle the case.

Cullen became head of the diocese upon Welsh's retirement in 1998. Cullen immediately implemented a diocesan policy that required removal of priests from ministry if a credible abuse allegation is filed against them. That policy is nearly identical to the one adopted by the nation's bishops in Dallas in June.

On March 5 this year, the Mount Penn man and his father met with Monsignors John McCann and Alfred Schlert, who were handling the cases for Cullen. The family was told that Lawrence had been removed from ministry in February along with three other priests who were said to have credible abuse allegations in their past.

That wasn't the only thing that made this meeting different.

"It was the first time anyone had acknowledged any wrongdoing," the man said. "Monsignor McCann looked me in the eye and said, "Let me say that I'm sorry.' That was significant because it was the first time in 20 years someone said they were sorry."

The man was offered counseling, but declined. He asked for and was granted a meeting with the bishop, but when the day came, he opted not to make the hourlong drive to Allentown.

"I've always been the one to go see them," he said. "Bishop Cullen says he is reaching out, but so far he's put other people in charge. If Cullen is really who he says he is, he can come and see me."

After the meeting with McCann and Schlert, the man reported the incident to Berks County District Attorney Mark Baldwin, who found that the offense occurred too long ago to be prosecuted.

The victim has since been in touch with an Altoona lawyer, who has a list of clients whose cases surpass the state's statute of limitations, which gives adults until they are 23 to file abuse charges from their childhood.

When Cullen removed Lawrence from ministry, the priest was living at St. Paul's Church in Allentown, was serving on the marriage tribunal and was chaplain to the nuns at the Carmelite Monastery in Coopersburg.

Lawrence currently lives at Holy Family Manor in Bethlehem, where Welsh also resides. Lawrence no longer is allowed to celebrate Mass in public, wear a clerical collar or present himself as a priest. But because he has not been defrocked, Lawrence -- and seven other Allentown Diocese priests who have been removed or have retired amid allegations in the past two years -- continue to receive diocesan housing and financial support.

In accordance with a zero-tolerance policy adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in June, Cullen is assembling a panel of clergy and laypeople to review cases against priests locally.

That zero-tolerance policy was revised last Wednesday by the nation's bishops in Washington, D.C. to bolster rights of accused priests. Under the policy, bishops still would remove priests from ministry -- and possibly defrock them -- for one credible abuse allegation. However, priests now would have the right to appeal the decision before a church court.

Defrocked priests are no longer considered clergy and are not entitled to pay and housing from the diocese. Priests who are removed from ministry remain on the diocesan payroll.

If not for the tenacity of the Mount Penn victim and his father, and Cullen's willingness to address the problem, Lawrence might have remained an active priest.

The boy's father never threatened to take the case to court and never asked for money. He said he just wanted to ensure that what happened to his son wouldn't happen to anyone else's. He said he was assured by the diocese that there were no other accusations in Lawrence's personnel file, which was among about two dozen turned over to district attorneys in the five counties that make up the diocese.

Reflecting on the Lawrence case, the Mount Penn victim shook his head at the decisions that put him and others in harm's way. It shows, he said, that church officials were more concerned about protecting priests than protecting children.

What bothers him most is that the Vatican and Cullen and other bishops have refused to defrock Lawrence and other priests accused of abusing children.

Knowing that Lawrence continues to receive housing and financial support from the diocese, the Mount Penn man has refused to donate to the bishop's annual appeal, which funds numerous social services, including the care of priests living at Holy Family Manor, where Lawrence resides.

He stands on principle against the hierarchy of a billion-member church he still cherishes.

"I was able to separate my faith from what happened," he said. "I need my faith. It helps me. I believe in it. But I can't go to church lately. It's hard to watch the priests go through the routine of Mass."

As for the church's response, no one has ever commented on the Lawrence case, as has been the diocesan practice with all but one case of priests accused of sexually abusing children.

In a letter read at St. Patrick's Church in Pottsville in April, Cullen told parishioners that their pastor, Monsignor William E. Jones, had been removed from ministry because of a credible abuse allegation. Jones, vicar (the bishop's representative) of southern Schuylkill County at the time of his departure, taught with Lawrence at Notre Dame High School in the 1970s.

Cullen would not confirm the allegation against Lawrence, did not respond to written requests for comment about the case and declined to answer a reporter's questions about it when asked at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Dallas in June.

Cullen also has declined to comment on the diocese's handling of abuse cases before his tenure.

He spoke about the cases in general in an address that was read in April at Masses in every church in the diocese, which comprises Lehigh, Northampton, Carbon, Schuylkill and Berks counties.

In that address, Cullen said bishops dealt with abusive priests according to standards acceptable at the time. He referred to the four priests who were removed in February, saying, "all had undergone psychological evaluation and therapy, and experts in the behavioral sciences had judged them suitable to return to priestly ministry."

Retired Bishop Welsh declined two written requests for an interview. Monsignor Muntone, who handled the cases under both Welsh and McShea, also declined to be interviewed. Reached by phone, Muntone referred questions to Matt Kerr, diocesan spokesman.

Lawrence, reached by phone, said, "I will have no comment," and referred questions to Kerr, who declined to comment.

Monsignor Smith, the priest at the Mount Penn parish who helped arrange the family's meeting with diocesan officials, also would not grant an interview for this story.

As more cases surface, the Mount Penn man has found it hard to bury the past. He's nagged by a worry that there may have been other victims and a fear that he should have reported the offense sooner to law enforcement officials.

His relationship with the church weighs even more heavily on his mind. While his faith remains strong, his interest in going to church has waned. It's not the institution that he feels betrayed by, but the men who run it.

That's why he was curt when McCann and Schlert offered an apology.

"Thank you," he said. "But forgive me for not accepting it just yet."

 
 

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