Ex-Prep Priest Accused
By Ed Palattella
November 13, 2003
The Rev. Michael G. Barletta always urged his students to help others.
The former theology teacher at Erie's Cathedral Preparatory School had a motto: "A person's love lives on in the action of those he touches."
Barletta taught at Prep from 1975 through the 1993-94 academic year. During his first months at Prep, he started the Teenage Action Club, or TAC, through which students from Prep and other local Catholic high schools aided the underprivileged.
Hundreds of teenagers joined TAC. Barletta — known as "Barts" — became a popular teacher who would socialize with students and take some of them on trips.
"He was very charismatic," one of Barletta's former students recalled. "He made being Catholic fun. He was kind of a big kid in a lot of ways."
The former student said Barletta was also something else — a sexual predator.
The former student, now 39, said Barletta sexually molested him for several years, starting when the man was 15 years old and a sophomore at Prep.
"He is a calculating predator," the man said. "This guy's name needs to be released, because people need to know."
The man said he is not alone in his experiences with Barletta.
He is one of three Prep alumni who have complained to Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman about Barletta, who is now 63 years old. The men said the incidents occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Trautman became bishop of the Erie diocese in 1990.
Two of the men said Barletta molested them when they were younger than 18 and students at the all-boys Cathedral Prep, according to interviews with the men and their lawyer. The third man said Barletta fondled him and made sexual advances toward him. The man said he was 16 or 17 years old and a student at Prep.
The same lawyer represents all three men, two of whom no longer live in the Erie area. One is a health-care professional. One is an engineer. One is a research scientist.
The expiration of the statute of limitations has prevented the men from pursuing claims against Barletta in civil or criminal court.
Barletta could not be reached for comment. He did not respond to a registered letter the Erie Times-News sent to his most recent known address, 130 E. Fourth St., the rectory for St. Patrick Catholic Church in Erie.
The Erie Times-News requested that the letter be forwarded to Barletta if he no longer lived at that address. A nun accepted the letter on Barletta's behalf, according to the return sent to the Erie Times-News.
Barletta's name does not appear in the newest telephone directories for Erie.
Barletta was in Erie recently. He was seen at a wedding reception at Erie's Union Station on Sept. 27. Barletta was not dressed in clerical garb and did not participate in the wedding ceremony, according to people who were there.
The three men who said Barletta abused them have pressed their concerns with the diocese. The men said they have been in talks with Trautman for more than a year, and that the diocese has already paid $15,000 to $20,000 in therapy for one of them. The men said they are in negotiations with Trautman over a long-term agreement to pay for therapy in the future.
Barletta is no longer serving in the ministry in the 13-county Catholic Diocese of Erie, though the diocese has refused to comment on why he is no longer in ministry. The three men said their complaints to the bishop led Trautman to remove Barletta from ministry.
One of the men said he first complained to Trautman about Barletta in 1994. Barletta left Prep within a year, and Trautman moved him to more limited ministries, the men said. Barletta's duties eventually included working at the diocese's Office of Catholic Charities and acting as the chaplain at the Holy Family Carmelite Monastery, a cloistered community for religious women in Erie.
The men said Trautman told them he entirely removed Barletta from ministry this year — nine years after one of the men first complained. Barletta's removal, as well as Trautman's removal of other priests accused of sexual abuse, followed the eruption of the clergy sexual-abuse scandal in Boston in early 2002.
The Erie diocese no longer lists Barletta in its official directory for 2002-03. Barletta was in the directory for 2001-02.
Trautman declined to be interviewed for this report. He previously told the Erie Times-News he would not comment on priest personnel matters.
Bishop Michael J. Murphy, who headed the diocese from 1982 to 1990, also declined to be interviewed. Murphy succeeded Bishop Alfred M. Watson, who headed the diocese from 1969 to 1982. Watson died in 1990.
Trautman in prior correspondence with the Erie Times-News confirmed that any priest who no longer appears in the diocesan directory is out of the ministry. He has refused to be specific about why those priests have left the ministry.
The three Prep alumni said Trautman told them in April he had removed Barletta from the ministry a week earlier. That removal would make Barletta the sixth priest in the 235-priest Catholic Diocese of Erie known to have resigned or been removed from the ministry because of allegations of sexual misconduct, according to an ongoing investigation by the Erie Times-News.
The three men who went to Trautman about Barletta have discussed their allegations with Erie County District Attorney Brad Foulk, who said he listened to the men and explained the problems with the statute of limitations.
The men told him of "specific incidents" involving Barletta, Foulk said. "And they were pretty clear over their time frames."
Foulk in April 2002 met with Trautman to review the cases of diocesan priests in Erie County accused of sexual abuse. Trautman provided no names of the priests, but discussed only case studies with him, Foulk said. Foulk said he was able to piece together the names of the priests from other information.
Foulk has declined to release those names because, he said, Trautman never provided the names to him. But a law-enforcement source close to Foulk's investigation of the priests said Barletta was one of the priests whom Foulk and Trautman discussed as being accused of sexual abuse.
The three men who complained about Barletta to Trautman said they welcomed the bishop's decision to remove him from the ministry. They said they want Barletta and his removal publicized.
Trautman, citing the canon law of the Catholic Church, has declined to comment on allegations against diocesan priests. Trautman has never identified Barletta by name as a priest he has removed from ministry.
The men said the public, especially parents, should know the identities and whereabouts of all the priests removed for allegations of sexual abuse.
"Who is protecting these kids out there?" one of the men said. "Put these names out in the public if it will not be tolerated. If you want to protect the children, release the names."
A teacher with a following
The three men asked that the Erie Times-News not use their names because they are victims of sexual abuse. The Erie Times-News typically publishes the names of sexual-abuse victims only with their permission.
The three men graduated from Prep in the early 1980s. Two were classmates; the third graduated before them. Each said he regards Prep highly and said the school is not to blame for what happened to them.
"I don't think this had anything to do with Prep," said one of the men, who lives in another state. "It is a great school. If I lived in Erie, I'd send my kids to Prep."
Barletta grew up in Ellwood City, Lawrence County, and started his teaching career at Kennedy Christian High School, now known as Kennedy Catholic High School, in Hermitage, Mercer County.
Barletta was ordained May 6, 1966, when he was 26 years old. Three weeks later, he got his assignment to teach at Kennedy Christian. While there, Barletta established a community-service club, an activity he would reprise years later at Cathedral Prep.
Then-Bishop Watson assigned Barletta to Prep in May 1975, when Barletta was 35. Barletta created the Teenage Action Club there in December 1975.
The club would grow to be one of Prep's largest, eventually including more than one-third of the Prep student body. Barletta would remain at Prep for nearly 20 years.
Barletta's theology classes at Prep were popular. His former students today quickly recall his lessons about morality and his explanations of defense mechanisms people use to rationalize behavior or deal with disappointment.
Barletta preached forgiveness, the three Prep alumni told the Erie Times-News. They said he often heard students' confessions.
He taught that "no one was perfect, but that your goal was to strive for the objective," one of the three men said. "He didn't talk about the fire-and-brimstone stuff, but the loving God.
"I sought counseling with him," the man said. "He was trying to help me out with issues. He played a positive role in my life in so many ways. But he crossed boundaries that he should not have crossed."
Said another of the men: "He was really good with kids. He was a black widow. He spins the web. He lures you in."
'A slow seduction'
Barletta was around students all the time, the men said. They said he cheered at sporting events and was friendly with many student athletes. All three of the men played sports at Prep and were involved in TAC.
The man who said Barletta molested him for several years said he gradually spent more time alone with Barletta. The man called Barletta's methods "a slow seduction."
Barletta, the man said, would say, "'Let me rub your shoulders.' He also liked to use hypnotism to work on issues — the unconscious mind.
"He would give me a ride home, and then he wanted to hear my confession," the man said. "You can see how it would blur the borders."
The man said the sexual abuse began when he was 15 years old, and that it started at Barletta's then-residence at the rectory of St. Luke Catholic Church, 421 E. 38th St. The man said Barletta "enticed you to participate. The most frustrating thing to me was how he would twist you into doing that."
The abuse "seemed to go on for a while, even after high school," the man said. "We had some battles. We got into arguments. I kept telling him I didn't like what was happening. It was a slow, insidious brainwashing."
The man said he wanted to report Barletta, but he feared the consequences. He played on the Prep football team, and he said the views of his teammates and classmates worried him.
"Barletta was very good at picking certain guys, certain guys who were good-looking guys," the man said. "You were afraid to step forward and say something because you were afraid they would judge you. I wasn't able to eventually handle the stuff. I felt helpless in this relationship.
"I felt less of a man. I felt insecurities that never existed. He took something from me I thought I could never replace."
'I was scared, absolutely'
While still at Prep, the man said, he witnessed Barletta molest another student. The man and that student — now also 39 years old and living in another state — said the incident happened in a Toronto hotel room during a trip with Barletta.
The trip itself was nothing unusual for Barletta, the men said. They said Barletta frequently took pairs of Prep students on trips to such places as Toronto, Niagara Falls and Punxsutawney, where they said Barletta had a camp.
The Toronto trip occurred when the second man was 16 years old, that man said. He said he and his friend, the man who said Barletta abused him for several years, were alone with Barletta in the hotel room.
The second man said of Barletta: "In his psychological way, he tried hypnosis on me. He was touching us. At that point in time, he molested me. All I could imagine was, 'How can I get home?' I was scared, absolutely."
The man said Barletta tried to put him at ease after the molestation. He said Barletta told him and his friend: "'This is a normal thing. You shouldn't worry about it. It is just a massage. This is just really normal for young people to react like this.' It was a mental puzzle."
The second man said Barletta molested him only that one time in Toronto. He said he later tried to avoid Barletta and not talk to him. The man remained active in TAC, Barletta's community-service club. He said he feared what would happen if he came forward then and complained about Barletta.
"We were good-looking kids, athletic kids, growing up," the man said. "When this happens, you try to suppress things. We never really talked about it.
"This guy preyed on guys who had pretty strong personalities, who ultimately would be embarrassed if anything like this came out. Relationships were impacted by that — trust, getting closer to anyone. You think, 'I'm different. I'm weird, this happened to me.' Rage. I was angry at myself that I could have allowed this to happen, how obvious the guy was. There were signals."
'It is a sad day'
The third Cathedral Prep alumnus who said he complained about Barletta to Trautman is now 41 years old and living in the Erie area. Like the other two men, he said he grew up in a traditional Roman Catholic family with a strong respect for the priesthood.
The third man — an athlete active in TAC while at Prep — said he grew close to Barletta, one of his teachers, and often sought Barletta's guidance for problems he was having at home.
"He became a surrogate father," the man said.
Looking back, the man said, he has come to realize Barletta also was "a master psychologist," a person who identified students' vulnerabilities and worked to exploit them. The man said his weakness revolved around a lack of encouragement at home.
Barletta "could work on it for a long time, and be patient," the man said. "He began getting closer and closer, slowly testing the physical boundaries."
The man said he was 16 or 17 years old when he and several other Prep students went camping with Barletta at a campground near the entrance to Presque Isle State Park. The man said he woke up one morning at the camp to find Barletta massaging his genitals.
The man said he turned away from Barletta and tried to put the incident out of his mind. Another incident occurred a short time later, the man said. This one was at Barletta's quarters at the St. Luke rectory.
He said Barletta took him into his bedroom, pulled the shades down, tried to touch him and tried to coax him into taking off his pants.
"I didn't respond," the man said. "I said, 'No, I've got to get out of here.'"
The man said he left Barletta's quarters — and once again tried to forget the experience.
"When I left his place that night, it was gone," the man said. "I let it go."
But not entirely. The man said Barletta never made another advance toward him, but he said he still was in contact with Barletta, particularly in TAC. The man said he felt powerless to report Barletta, so he did not.
"Who the hell, at age 17, before your senior year, is going to say, 'Barts grabbed me'?" the man said. "What the hell is that going to do to a teenage reputation?"
Years later, the man said, he still wonders how he was able to try to forget about Barletta for so long. He said he believes Barletta got to know him as a teen, got to become his "surrogate father," so he could try to abuse him.
"It is a sad day when the son knows he is better than his father," the man said. He said of Barletta, "If there is a real God, he is going down with the worst of the worst."
Moving to another state helped one of the men — the man who said Barletta abused him for several years — decide to come forward about Barletta. Before then, he said, he still had contact with Barletta, who married the man and his wife in the early 1990s.
Once the man left Erie, and Barletta, he entered therapy in 1994. About that time, he said, he contacted Trautman and told him Barletta had abused him.
The man said Trautman later told him he had called in Barletta and that Barletta admitted to the allegations. The man said Trautman also told him Barletta admitted to abusing only that man and no one else.
The man said he knew otherwise. He said he had been in the hotel room in Toronto when Barletta abused his friend.
Barletta "continued his pattern of lying," the man said.
He said Trautman told him Barletta "would have no access to children," though Barletta still would be in ministry. The man said Trautman told him Barletta would enter therapy.
Barletta is known to have left Cathedral Prep sometime after the 1993-94 academic year. The Rev. Raymond Hahn, Prep's acting headmaster from August 1994 through June 30, 1995, said Barletta was not on staff when he was headmaster. Hahn's predecessor as headmaster, Arthur Bergamasco, who served from 1989 through August 1994, died in October 2002.
The 1994 edition of the Prep yearbook includes Barletta's photograph and lists him as a faculty member. The 1995 yearbook has no picture of Barletta nor any listing of him as a faculty member.
The section about TAC in the 1995 Prep yearbook said the club was in the "post-Fr. Barletta era." TAC was disbanded after the 1995-96 academic year, according to the Prep yearbook.
After 1994, five years passed before contact resumed between Trautman and the man who said Barletta abused him over several years. The man said his son was starting elementary school in another state, at a Catholic school, so the man thought more about what Barletta had done to him.
The man said he was in therapy at the time, and having problems in his marriage. He said he blamed some of the problems on Barletta. The year was 1999.
"I felt that, at that time, everything hadn't been done with the guy," the man said. "I just felt, You know what, I need to step forward and take this guy out of action. He is the closest thing to Lucifer I can think of."
The man said he telephoned Trautman, and that Trautman offered to help pay for the man's counseling.
"He was pretty good," the man said of Trautman's treatment of him at that time.
Three years later, the man would contact Trautman once more. The other two men, whom he knew through mutual friends, would join him. The priest scandal exploding in Boston fired the trio's desire to do something.
They had one goal: to get Barletta out of the priesthood altogether.
The men said they decided to act in the spring of 2002, after the Erie Times-News in April published a series of stories about how the Catholic Diocese of Erie had responded to the clergy sexual-abuse scandal. Trautman in those articles said he had removed a "couple" of priests from the ministry, but he refused to be specific.
The men said the bishop's comments left them wondering what had happened to Barletta. The men said they got in touch with each other through mutual friends and then contacted a lawyer. The lawyer asked not to be identified for this story because he has close ties to the men, and that identifying him would identify the men as well.
According to the lawyer and the men, the following events unfolded:
* The men and their lawyer met with Trautman and a diocesan lawyer, Frank Kroto, at the St. Mark Catholic Center in Erie in July 2002.
The men said Trautman told them he believed their complaints. They said Trautman told them he had moved Barletta's residence to the rectory of St. Patrick Catholic Church "where I can keep an eye on him."
The men also said Trautman suggested they confront Barletta on their own.
"He wanted to know why we didn't go after the perpetrator," said the man who said Barletta molested him over several years. "That put us on the defensive."
Kroto declined comment. His policy has been not to comment on any out-of-court diocesan activity related to the priest sexual-abuse scandal.
According to the official diocesan directory, Barletta in 2001 and 2002 was working at the diocese's Office of Catholic Charities, based at the diocesan headquarters, St. Mark Catholic Center, and acting as the chaplain at the Holy Family Carmelite Monastery, 510 E. Gore Road. The 2001-02 directory lists Barletta's residence as the St. Patrick rectory.
The men said they discussed their complaints with Trautman and their concerns that Barletta was still in ministry. They said Trautman also agreed to have the diocese pay for their therapy.
* The men had hoped another resource would be available — the new diocesan review board on clergy sexual abuse. Bishops nationwide established such review boards after the bishops' meeting in Dallas in June 2002 to address the clergy sexual-abuse scandal.
The Catholic Diocese of Erie told the men in a letter dated Sept. 9, 2002, that the review board had reviewed their case. The letter said the board unanimously agreed that the men take up any claim for compensation directly with the "alleged priest predator."
* The men's lawyer wrote a letter to Trautman on Nov. 5, 2002, asking that the men be allowed to meet with the diocesan review board. The letter said the men had reviewed the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," which the U.S. Catholic bishops issued in 2002 to address the clergy sexual-abuse scandal. The men said they wanted to meet with the review board in light of the charter and "in the spirit of reconciliation."
Trautman refused the request in a letter Nov. 14. "Quite simply," Trautman wrote, "there is no direct access to (the) diocesan review board. It is not within the purview of the diocesan review board to function as a jury of inquest."
* The men said they met with Trautman most recently in April, without lawyers present. They said Trautman reiterated the diocese's offer to pay for counseling for the men.
Trautman was more conciliatory than at the first meeting, said the man who said Barletta molested him for years.
"It was much different," the man said. He said he believes Trautman "really is trying to do the right thing. His hands are tied. He is a good guy."
The other man, who said he was molested in the hotel room, was more critical of Trautman. He said the Catholic Diocese of Erie has shielded Barletta from scrutiny.
"The rules that apply to these people amaze me," the man said. "Can you imagine a school counselor molesting someone and the school district taking care of him?
"Actions speak louder than words."
At the April meeting, the men said, Trautman told them he had removed Barletta from the ministry, and that he was pursuing the laicization of Barletta — the process by which the Vatican defrocks a priest. A priest can be removed from the ministry but remain a priest until laicization.
The men said the main unresolved issue between them and the bishop is how the diocese would pay for their counseling.
The men said the diocese wants the men to submit invoices to the diocese each time they want counseling approved. The men said they want the diocese to place a specific amount of money in an account for each man. The men said they want to be able to use that money only for counseling, but with no involvement from the diocese.
"I don't want to have to deal with the church," said the man who said Barletta abused him over several years. "I need therapy. I don't want to have to mail invoices. I don't want the church to tell me what to do."
The man estimated the diocese had already paid for $15,000 to $20,000 for his therapy. He said the current negotiations deal with future therapy.
The man who said Barletta molested him in the hotel room said he has yet to decide whether he will seek therapy.
"But I don't want the church to control my destiny, whom I talk to, when I could talk to them," the man said. "I am not going to have someone looking over my shoulder."
The third man said he doubts he will seek therapy over what he said happened with Barletta. "I don't want to be reminded of him," he said.
The man said he supports the positions of his friends, and that he believes Trautman is doing his best to handle the abuse scandal. But the man said he wants people to know about Barletta's past.
"It should be known to the community that he is that way," the man said.
'He has never been held accountable'
The men said the secrecy bothers them. They said church officials were quiet about what Barletta did before, and that they continue to protect him through silence.
If not for the statute of limitations, the men said, Barletta would face criminal prosecution.
"As it is, this guy is going to get away," said the man who said Barletta abused him in the hotel room. "I don't want to say I want revenge. He needs to be exposed. He needs to be marked in our society as a predator."
The man criticized Trautman for failing to be more forthright in response to the scandal.
"In my opinion, he is doing all the right things to protect the church," the man said.
Barletta "has never been held accountable," said the man who said Barletta abused him over several years.
"It doesn't sit well with me that this guy is sitting in an apartment somewhere with access to who knows what. This guy needs to be kept an eye on.
"People need to understand: We are still Catholics," the man said, speaking for him and his two friends. "But do you want a Catholic Church that has dealt with these accusations, or dealt with them haphazardly?
"These priests need to be dealt with." Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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