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  Suits Say Archdiocese Enabled Abuse
Six Men Contend Phila. Catholic Church Negligence Let Priests and a Teacher Molest Them. One Priest Is Still in a Parish

By Larry King and Walter F. Naedele
Philadelphia Inquirer
March 25, 2004

Six men sued the Archdiocese of Philadelphia yesterday, claiming that institutional negligence and secrecy enabled four priests and a parish schoolteacher to abuse them sexually as children.

The lawsuits, filed in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, were the latest in a spate of cases seeking damages for claims of long-ago abuse by Roman Catholic priests. This batch was unusual because one of the accused priests remains active - at the helm of a 1,100-family parish in Bucks County.

The Rev. John Schmeer, pastor of St. Martin of Tours Church in New Hope, is accused in one suit of molesting a student at Philadelphia's Roman Catholic High School in the late 1960s. Schmeer was the boy's school counselor at the time, the suit says.

In a statement issued yesterday, the archdiocese said it first received allegations against Schmeer in March 2002. The statement said Schmeer "fully cooperated" with investigators for the archdiocese's review board, which concluded in November that the claims were not credible.

The archdiocese did not say whether those allegations were the same ones described in yesterday's lawsuit. Jay N. Abramowitch, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Schmeer has other accusers who will be filing suits.

One of the other priests mentioned in the suits, the Rev. Joseph P. Gausch, died in 1999, the archdiocese said. He had served at Queen of the Universe parish in Levittown, and at Good Shepherd in Philadelphia.

Another, the Rev. Ernest A. Durante, left the priesthood in 1986. He had worked with Schmeer at Roman Catholic High. The fourth accused priest, the Rev. Francis X. Trauger, was dismissed in December after the archdiocese concluded that allegations of abuse against him were credible. He was one of four priests ousted by church officials for sexually abusing teenagers. He had been an assistant priest at St. Michael the Archangel parish in Levittown.

The former teacher, Eileen Rhoads, left her job at Holy Cross Parish Elementary School in Springfield, Delaware County, in 1994, the archdiocese said. Now 64, she is awaiting trial on felony sexual assault charges in Virginia. On Feb. 2, a Virginia Beach grand jury indicted her after a 40-year-old man accused Rhoads, a nun at the time, of molesting him during the 1969-70 school year at a parish school there.

A study released on Feb. 27 said that nearly 11,000 children nationwide had been sexually abused by Roman Catholic priests over the last five decades. The report was prepared for the U.S. Conference of Bishops by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

A day earlier, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said it had found 44 priests with credible allegations against them, and had paid $1.45 million for legal settlements and counseling. It did not say how many victims it had confirmed. A grand jury in Philadelphia has been investigating priest abuse and the archdiocese's actions.

In a report issued alongside the John Jay study, a review board assembled by the bishops blamed the church for hiding abuse, neglecting victims, failing to properly screen clergy candidates, and choosing to reassign - not dismiss - sexually abusive priests.

Yesterday's lawsuits made similar claims. By contending that the church fraudulently concealed evidence of abuse, victims' lawyers say the normal statute of limitations does not apply to claims of decades-old wrongdoing by priests.

"Our position is that the archdiocese knew or should have known of the pedophilic tendencies of the priests at the time they placed them into these positions where they had unlimited access to the children," Abramowitch said, but that it instead covered them up.

Because of the institutional nature of the claims, individual priests are not named as defendants, the lawyer said. But he disputed recent statements by church officials that no known pedophiles currently serve as priests, calling Schmeer "the perfect example."

"They didn't remove Father Schmeer," Abramowitch said, but instead transferred him to a new parish.

Schmeer's accuser, a 50-year-old Delaware County man, claims that the priest repeatedly fondled him during guidance counseling sessions at Roman Catholic High. He said Schmeer and Durante twice forced him to swim naked with them at the pool at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood.

On one occasion, the man claims, Schmeer and Durante forced him into the deep end of the pool, knowing he was a novice swimmer. He said they molested him in the water, barely holding him above the surface.

Other times, the suit alleges, the two priests forced him to perform sex acts in front of them. At school, he said, Schmeer paraded him around the hallways, touching him inappropriately in front of other students.

Eventually, the man said, he was raped at the school by other students "who believed that he was a homosexual as a result of the . . . conduct of Father Schmeer."

A woman who identified herself as Schmeer's secretary said yesterday he was unavailable for comment. Deborah Jaster, principal of the parish school, referred questions about Schmeer to the archdiocese.

But James M. Wilson, the volunteer activities manager for the parish, said he and his wife are "very upset with the allegations. We've always known Father to be a loving, caring and strong pastor."

Wilson, a member of the parish finance committee, said that Schmeer arrived in 1991 and is largely responsible for the parish's new church and school buildings, which opened in 2000 and 2001.

"We're praying that all these false allegations will be put to rest," Wilson said.

Madeline Sage, whose four children attended religious instruction classes at St. Martin of Tours, said in a phone interview that Schmeer "has always been above reproach."

The Sages now reside in Bedminster, but Sage said they were parishioners at St. Martin for about 10 years.

Schmeer "never really had any direct contact with the kids," she said of the religious instruction classes usually given to those attending public school. "He hired somebody to oversee" the classes.

Thomas J. Fresco, 17, a junior at New Hope-Solebury High School, yesterday called Schmeer "a nice guy."

Fresco, a St. Martin of Tours parishioner and an Eagle Scout, was given a scouting award by Schmeer in 1999 for attending sessions where religious issues were discussed.

"He talks to people, tries to help out a lot," Fresco said. "If you need advice on issues, I know he's a good person to talk to."

 
 

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