Sexual-abuse Lawsuit Filed against Former Priest Who Worked in Northwest Indiana

By Robert Mitchum
Chicago Tribune

December 4, 2008,0,893729.story

Case involves boy in northwest Indiana

A lawsuit alleging sexual abuse was filed Wednesday against a former Catholic priest who worked in northwest Indiana for incidents that occurred more than 10 years after the diocese of Gary received warnings about the priest's inappropriate behavior with boys.

The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court of Lake County, Indiana, said Richard Emerson, then a priest at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Munster, Ind., repeatedly abused an unidentified 11-year-old boy in his parish in 2003 and 2004. The suit further alleges that the diocese of Gary had been warned about Emerson's conduct with boys before the abuse allegedly occurred.

In a 2004 letter to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI, Bishop Dale Melczek of the diocese of Gary wrote that, since 1992, "on a number of occasions priests and laypeople have expressed their concern to me about Father Emerson." The letter said Melczek warned Emerson about taking boys on vacations and letting them stay in his rectory.

"There were never allegations of any kind of sexual misconduct or sexual abuse. But I thought that the behavior was inappropriate, and thus I warned him about it," Melczek said when asked about the letter Wednesday. "I didn't have any reason to believe there was something amiss going on."

Emerson began his tenure with the diocese of Gary in 1978, serving at churches in Hammond, Schererville, East Chicago, LaPorte, Munster and Michigan City. He also was a priest in Orlando for four years but was returned to Gary in 1991 for "giving inappropriate attention to two teen sons of a particular family," according to a 1991 letter from the bishop of Orlando to the bishop of Gary provided by the attorneys who filed the lawsuit.

Church officials received word of more serious sexual abuse allegations in June 2004, Melczek said, shortly before a lawsuit was filed by a Florida man who alleged that sexual abuse occurred while Emerson was in Orlando. The diocese conducted an internal review of the allegations, and removed Emerson from the ministry in December 2004 after determining them credible.

At his request, Emerson was defrocked in 2006 and given $20,000 "to help him with expenses to get his life in order," Melczek said.

Before Emerson's dismissal, the suit filed Wednesday claims the priest sexually abused an 11-year-old boy, identified only as John Doe and a resident of Hobart, Ind., while he was a parishioner at St. Thomas More Catholic Church. Emerson bought the boy gifts and forced him to watch a pornographic video, the suit alleges.

Melczek said Wednesday that he could not comment on the specifics of that lawsuit because the diocese had not yet received a copy. A lawsuit from a second Orlando plaintiff was also filed earlier this year. No criminal charges have been filed against Emerson in the 2003 abuse or prior allegations, said Marc Pearlman, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys.



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