Congregation Stands by Pastor
The Rev. John Schmeer of New Hope Denied Allegations He Molested a Teen
Congregation Rallies behind Pastor, Who Is Accused of Abuse
By Dan Hardy and Jim Remsen
March 29, 2004
Speaking to a supportive congregation yesterday, the Rev. John Schmeer, pastor of St. Martin of Tours Church in New Hope, denied allegations that he had abused a teenage boy in the late 1960s.
Schmeer, 69, the pastor at the Bucks County church since 1990, told several hundred parishioners at the 11 a.m. Mass that the allegations have been found to be "without merit" by church investigators, including a review board charged with looking into allegations of sexual abuse.
"From the beginning, I denied the allegations because they were false," he said. "The incidents never took place."
When he added: "Contrary to what has been rumored, there has been no discussion of my resigning, taking a leave of absence or being replaced," virtually the whole audience stood and applauded.
At the end of the service, 20 members of the congregation came to the front of the church to pledge their support. Their spokesman, Tom Nowakowski, told the audience that the allegations were "vile, vicious, slanderous accusations meant to destroy the reputation of a wonderful, loving, caring pastor who I call my friend."
Nowakowski said after the service that Schmeer had told him about the allegations "from the beginning," and that he had driven the priest to two polygraph examinations, both of which Nowakowski said Schmeer passed.
The allegations have been known to the Philadelphia Archdiocese and to a few members of the congregation since March 2002. The review board concluded in November that they were "not credible," according to archdiocesan spokeswoman Catherine Rossi.
The accusations were made public only last week in a lawsuit filed by six men claiming that institutional negligence and secrecy on the part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia enabled four priests and a parish schoolteacher, including Schmeer, to abuse them sexually as children.
Schmeer is accused by a Delaware County resident, now 50, of repeatedly fondling and sexually abusing him while he was a student at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, where Schmeer was his counselor. None of the rest of those named in the suit is active in the priesthood or working for the archdiocese; one has died.
Jay Abramowitch, of Wyomissing, Pa., the attorney for the man alleging Schmeer abused him, said Friday that his client was never summoned before the board nor told of its finding. "It's not much of a review when you're not notified of proceeding and not allowed to offer evidence," he said.
Rossi declined to respond to Abramowitch's statements. She also said confidentiality rules prevent the review board from discussing any cases publicly.
But she made one board member, Anne Shenberger, available to speak generally about the board's criteria for evaluating credibility. Shenberger, regional director of the state welfare department's Office of Children, Youth and Families, said in a phone interview last week that in its investigations, the board, with its field staff, tries to talk to the parties and any witnesses - in unsworn statements - then "takes the totality of information" and issues a report.
A finding is issued in all cases, she said, because "we can't leave the victim or priest hanging out there. Some are easier to make than others, no question about that.
"There is no presumption on one side or the other," she said. " 'The priest is always right' is not a presumption, nor that if there's not a lot of information, the victim is always right."
Yesterday, there was little doubt about the feelings of those in attendance at St. Martin. Signs posted in the front windows of the church read "God Bless a Great Pastor," "Pray for Father Schmeer and his False Accuser," and "It's all About Money - 30 Pieces of Silver."
Coming out of the service, Henry Cerwinski, of Solebury, a member of St. Martin for eight years, said: "I'm 100 percent behind him; he's done great things here. He's an outstanding priest - a real leader."
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