Church Denies Tie to Priests' Deeds
Fighting Suits, Diocese Says Alleged Sex Abuse Was outside Clergy Role

By Kathleen Parrish
The Morning Call [Allentown PA]
Downloaded February 6, 2004

The Catholic Diocese of Allentown denies responsibility for sexual abuse allegations against six of its priests, saying the alleged assaults took place outside the scope of their role as spiritual leaders of the church.

The diocese is asking the courts to dismiss five suits filed last month because the state's two-year statute of limitations for a civil case has expired. The suits - four of which were filed in Lehigh County and one in Schuylkill County last month ? describe how the priests allegedly abused the victims 20-40 years ago.

"The statute of limitations is the primary issue," said Bethlehem attorney Jay Leeson, who is representing the diocese. He declined to comment further.

In a legal twist, however, the victims aren't suing the priests, but the Allentown diocese and Bishop Edward P. Cullen and retired Bishop Thomas J. Welsh, claiming the bishops concealed the extent of the abuse and transferred priests to other assignments to conceal the crimes.

Attorneys Jay Abramowitch and Richard Serbin contend the clock on the statute of limitations doesn't begin ticking until July 2002, when, the attorneys say, the diocese first admitted it knew about the abuse.

It's a strategy Serbin is employing across the state, in more than a dozen lawsuits filed in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Altoona.

Abramowitch of Wyomissing, Berks County, declined to comment, and Serbin of Altoona said he had not seen the diocese's response.

Filed Monday, the diocese's responses to the lawsuits deny all wrongdoing in the accusations against the Revs. Richard Guiliani; Leo Houseknecht, now deceased, who taught at Notre Dame High School in Bethlehem Township during the 1970s; the Rev. Francis J. Fromholzer, who taught at Allentown Central Catholic High School; the Rev. Michael S. Lawrence, who taught at Central Catholic and Notre Dame; Monsignor William E. Jones, former vicar of the Southern Schuylkill Deanery who taught at Notre Dame; and Monsignor Dennis A. Rigney, who attended the seminary with Cullen and for years was director of Catholic Charities and head of the Catholic Social Agency.

Allegations range from fondling to simulating sex while clothed to forcing the plaintiff to perform oral sex. In one alleged victim's case, the priest proposed marriage.

In the responses, filed separately for each suit but making the same points, the diocese said it couldn't be held liable for the molestations because the priests were acting outside their authority as church employees at the time.

However, in two cases the abuse occurred in a church and in the basement of the school where the priest taught.

Also in the responses, the diocese said it was not negligent in "hiring, supervising or retaining" the accused priests, and it can't be held liable for not reporting allegations of abuse because the Child Protective Services Law didn't cover clergy until 1995.

David Cerulli, founder of the local chapter of Support Network for those Abused by Priests, called the diocese's response "yet another slap in the face."

"You can't have it both ways. You can't have the priest as being the next person closest to God and suddenly have them not be that important or significant," said Cerulli, who says an Allentown priest abused him when he was a 14-year-old altar boy in 1964. "The power of the collar is always there. It always exists." 610-820-6627


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