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By Ed Palattella
Erie Times-News
June 29, 2003

Crawford County native Clair Prenatt wants the public to know the name of the Rev. Thomas E. Smith.

So does a 43-year-old Erie man.

Both men said Smith molested them when they were boys.

They said they want the public to know about Smith's background.

Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman removed Smith, 62, from ministry in March 2002 because of allegations of sexual abuse of minors, according to diocesan correspondence.

Smith now is working in a secular job outside of Erie County, the correspondence shows.

Prenatt, 45, said Smith molested him repeatedly 35 years ago, when Prenatt was 10 years old and living in Frenchtown, a village southeast of Meadville. Smith was Prenatt's stepbrother.

"Whenever I see a priest, I feel uncomfortable," Prenatt said recently from his home in Virginia. "I can't trust a priest.

"I can't step in a church and not get an ill feeling, from the smell of the incense, or from the smell of the church itself."

The 43-year-old Erie man said Smith repeatedly molested him when he was 9 and 10 years old. Smith then was a priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church at West 26th and Liberty streets.

Smith was so close to the man's family that he often slept at their house, the man said.

"I don't know how long it took to make it stop," the Erie man wrote to Trautman. "I remember several times just laying there, wishing it would end."

Decades later, in their own separate ways, Prenatt and the Erie man have fought back against Smith.

The Erie man, who asked that his name not be used for this story, first wrote to Trautman about Smith in September 1993. He alleged that Smith sexually abused him as a boy. The man wrote that he was concerned about whether Smith was still around young men.

Repeated letters to the bishop from the man and his parents resulted in Trautman removing Smith from active ministry, according to correspondence between the man and the bishop. The correspondence also shows that the diocese and the man reached a financial settlement.

Prenatt never made a written complaint to Trautman, and he never reached a settlement with the diocese.

But in the past two years, as the clergy sex abuse scandal has swept the nation, Prenatt's experience has spurred his sister to action.

In response to the scandal, Judith Prenatt of Meadville started the northwestern Pennsylvania chapter of S.N.A.P., or Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests. She spends her days counseling victims of clergy sexual abuse and tracking down more information about abusive priests.

"I will do whatever it takes, whatever it takes, to clean up this diocese," Judith Prenatt said. "I will push them to the limit."

Going public

The 43-year-old Erie man asked that his name not be used for this story because he said he is a victim of sexual abuse. Clair Prenatt gave permission to the Erie Times-News to use his name. The Erie Times-News typically does not publish the names of sexual abuse victims without their permission.

Trautman, the bishop of the Diocese of Erie since 1990, has never publicly disclosed that he removed Smith from active ministry.

Trautman declined a recent Erie Times-News request to discuss the status of Smith and other priests who are no longer in active ministry in the diocese.

The Times-News has determined Smith is one of at least five priests connected to the Erie diocese who have left the ministry over allegations of sexual misconduct. All but one of the cases involve children.

The Erie Times-News was unable to determine if the Erie diocese received any complaint about Smith before the 43-year-old man wrote to Trautman in 1993.

Church records show Smith served at nine or 10 churches across the Erie diocese throughout his career. Retired Bishop Michael J. Murphy, who preceded Trautman, said in an interview that he recalled receiving no complaints about Smith during Murphy's tenure as bishop.

Murphy, 87, served as bishop from 1982 to 1990. All the bishops of the Erie diocese who preceded Murphy are deceased.

Smith could not be reached for comment.

His current whereabouts could not be determined, although he is working in a secular job outside of Erie County, according to a letter Trautman sent the 43-year-old man in February. The man and his family had asked that Trautman require Smith to leave the priesthood and get a job outside of Erie County.

The man and Clair Prenatt wonder where Smith is. That's one reason they said they want the public to know Smith's name. They said they want people to know about Smith's background, and what he did to them.

The 43-year-old man said he wants the diocese to release the names of all the priests removed from ministry because of allegations of sexual misconduct.

"I feel like I have done what I can do. I want to be done with it," the man said. "I feel his name should be public. People should know who he is — who any of them are."

Clair Prenatt said he wants bishops nationwide, including Trautman, to release the names of all abusive priests. And he said he wants an admission from Smith and the diocese.

"I want Father Smith himself to confess," he said. "We always had to confess our sins — he should come forth and apologize. I will never forgive or forget. But I at least want him to admit.

"To grow up and think that no one would have ever believed me, and now, to know this is a fact. The diocese needs to fess up. The bishops need to fess up."

Contact: ed.palattella@timesnews.com

 
 

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