Suits Allege Church Cover-up

By Kristin Smith
The Delaware County Times [Chester PA]
March 25, 2004

Two lawsuits were filed Wednesday against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, alleging the cover-up of sexual abuse by a former teacher at a Springfield parochial school.

Eileen Rhoads, a 64-year old former nun from Upper Darby, is named in the suits filed by former students of Holy Cross Elementary School.She is also facing criminal sexual assault felonies against a former student in Virginia Beach, Va.

The lawsuits were two of six filed Wednesday, naming Rhoads and four priests, one of whom is still in active ministry in New Hope, Bucks County.

The two men who filed the suit against Rhoads live in Springfield and West Chester. Both allege they were molested by their former teacher when they were in sixth grade at Holy Cross.

Nether man wanted to be identified and are not speaking to the media at this time, said their attorney, Jay N. Abramowitch, who filed all six civil lawsuits against the diocese.

Rhoads, who had been a member of the order of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, had left religious life in 1972.

The alleged incidents at Holy Cross occurred during the school year of 1974 or 1975 and the school year 1976, when Rhoads was teaching as a lay person.

Irene D’Angelo, who answered the phone at the school, referred all questions to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Rhoads’ criminal defense attorney, James C. Lewis, could not be reached for comment.

Officials at the Archdiocese declined comment and instead issued a written release, stating that Rhoads had not worked for the archdiocese since 1994, when she left Holy Cross.

The archdiocese has not yet had the opportunity to review the lawsuits, but policies have been adopted to assist victims of abuse and programs are in place to prevent such abuse in the future, according to the statement.

"The archdiocese would like all the Catholic faithful to know that it takes seriously and investigates thoroughly any allegation of abuse," reads the statement in part.

The cases will be tried in civil court because the criminal statute of limitations against Rhoads and the other priests has expired. Under Pennsylvania law, a minor has until he is 22 years old, or four years after he reaches adulthood, to file any sexual abuse charges, said Abramowitch, who is a partner in a law firm in Wyomissing.

The archdiocese and Bevilacqua were named as defendants for their repeated cover-up of the sexual abuse, said Abramowitch.

The plaintiffs are seeking in excess of $50,000 for each of the 18 total counts, ranging from negligent supervision to intentional failure to warn.

The complaints allege Rhoads molested the two nearly every day during their sixth grade school year, including forcing one of the former students to have sexual intercourse with her more than 30 times at her apartment.

"This woman is and was a true pedophile," said Abramowitch. "She obviously got sexual satisfaction from having children manipulate her and have sexual intercourse with her."

Other incidents alleged by the men involved Rhoads forcing them to sit under her desk during class and perform sexual acts on her.

"Other students will corroborate this happened," said Abramowitch, who believes more former students will come forward with allegations against Rhoads. "This is only the complaint stage. When we take this to court, we will have other students who will actually testify."

Rhoads, who was arrested Feb. 11 at her home in the 2500 block of Stoneybrook Lane in the Drexel Hill section of Upper Darby, is currently facing two sexual assault charges for incidents that allegedly occurred during the 1969-70 school year at St. Gregory the Great Catholic School in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

A male victim, who was a 10-year old student at the school then, alleged Rhoads inappropriately touched him both during class and after school.

Virginia does not have a criminal sexual assault statute of limitations, said Abramowitch.

Rhoads moved to Pennsylvania shortly after the alleged incidents occurred in Virginia Beach, according to police there.

She then taught as a nun at Our Lady of Charity School in Brookhaven between 1970-72, confirmed Eileen Wilson, principal of the elementary school.

Wilson, who has been with Our Lady of Charity for three years, declined comment on the lawsuits.

Abramowitch said allegations of abuse by nuns or former nuns is "reasonably common" and Rhoads’ alleged victims waited so long to come forward because of the trauma involved with the incidents.

"It’s the nature of victimization," he said. "People don’t like to admit they were abused."

Additionally, more people are coming forward because the full scope of the church’s alleged cover-up of the abuse has come to light, said Abramowitch.