Lawsuits Accuse Catholic Diocese of Hiding Sexual Abuse by Priests

By Jim McKinnon
Post-Gazette [Pittsburgh PA]
April 29, 2004

Six lawsuits filed yesterday charged the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh with ignoring and concealing the sexual abuse of six people by priests as far back as to 1954.

The six plaintiffs, three men and three women, are now adults.

Each of the plaintiffs allege 17 counts against the diocese, Bishop Donald Wuerl, who heads the diocese, and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Wuerl's predecessor.

Attorney Alan H. Perer, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said the suits partly are based on a claim of "institutional pedophilia."

"These victims didn't know of the involvement of the church. Until they saw other lawsuits, they didn't realize the church had a system where they coddled, moved around and didn't monitor priests," Perer said. "In other words, the system was rotten. There was an overall system failure."

No criminal charges can be filed because the statute of limitations has long since expired. That also is why the priests are not being sued individually.

But Perer and his co-counsel plan to argue at a hearing scheduled July 6 that because of the diocese's policies that he said kept the priests' actions secret, the diocese should not be protected by the statute of limitations.

"It's not fair for the church to say, 'Maybe it happened, but you're too late,' " Perer said.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. has consolidated the six lawsuits. He will determine after the hearing in July whether the plaintiffs can go forward with the case.

Perer said plaintiffs in other counties and states have successfully argued that defendants' "fraudulent concealment" of ongoing incidents suspends the running of the statute of limitations.

The suit claims the church was negligent, acted in concert to conceal incidence of sexual abuse, misrepresented the status of the various priests, violated the statute by not publicly acknowledging incidents, did not care for and provide safe environments for children, did not protect children against risks of abuse, did not warn anyone of repeat offenders, and did not properly supervise the priests.

The suit further claims church officials were incompetent in allowing the abuse, that their negligence caused emotional distress, and that the plaintiffs were harmed because of official inaction.

The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese, said yesterday that he had heard about the suits but had not seen them.

"There's no question that when you hear this kind of information it is deeply troubling, and you can't help but feel saddened by it, that someone who was a child may have been abused in any way," Lengwin said.

The six priests named as offenders in the suit are:

Charles J. Chatt, whom a 36-year-old man said molested him over six years, beginning in 1982 when the man was an altar boy at Our Lady of Loreto Church in Brookline.

Richard Dorsch, who was a priest at All Saints Church in Etna, where a Florida man, formerly of Etna, said he was molested weekly over four years from the time he was 11.

Joseph Karabin, who, according to a 33-year-old man, molested him when he was an 13-year-old altar boy in 1983 and 1984 at St. Albert the Great Church in Baldwin Borough.

Lawrence O'Connell, who was accused by a woman who said she was 12 when he got her to perform sex acts with him. What began with kissing and fondling -- with two other girls watching -- ended three years later when O'Connell hired a new girl to work with him at St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin Church in Whitehall.

Andrew Suran, a priest at St. Michael Church in Braddock when an 8-year-old girl, now 59, of West Mifflin, said he fondled her. Fourteen years later, the woman took a teaching job at St. Ann School in Homestead, where Suran had been transferred, and she said he again fondled and kissed her. She quit the job after only a few months because of the abuse.

Joseph Wichmanowski, formerly of St. Stanislaus Church in Ambridge, accused of having a then 12-year-old girl, now 49, of Conway, Beaver County, perform sex acts regularly with him. She said Wichmanowski gave her church wine to drink, had sex with her three to four times a week, took her on a trip to New York and said that he planned to impregnate her.

The suits were filed by Perer and attorney Richard Serbin, who has filed several previous suits alleging priest sex abuse, several in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese.

Lengwin said that three of the accused priests have died -- Wichmanowski in 1977, Suran in 1971 and O'Connell in 1986.

Dorsch has a previous conviction and was placed on administrative leave in 1994. He withdrew from priestly ministry in May 1996, Lengwin said.

Chatt had been mentioned in a previous lawsuit but was not the subject. He was placed on leave in 1992 and withdrew in 2003 without returning to priestly ministry, Lengwin said.

Karabin withdrew from ministry in 2002.


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