|Diocese of Allentown Sued over Allegations of Sexual Abuse by Priest
By Colin Mcevoy
May 14, 2009
ALLENTOWN | When the Rev. James McHale, of the Diocese of Allentown, died in 1997, Sharon Tell attended the viewing just to make sure he was really gone.
Tell, 56, who claims McHale sexually abused her over the course of 20 years starting in her childhood in Bethlehem, had no legal recourse available against him for most of her life.
Seeking some sense of closure, she wrote what her husband called a "nasty note" and slipped it under the pillow of his coffin.
Now, Tell is going much further.
The Millersville, Pa., resident is suing the diocese, which she claims knew McHale was molesting her and other children but did nothing to stop him.
"They just swept it under the carpet," Tell said at a news conference Wednesday outside the diocese's administrative offices on West Tilghman Street, surrounded by friends and family.
"All those years of saying, 'No, he didn't do anything wrong, it's you, he didn't do anything wrong.'"
Diocese spokesman Matt Kerr said the current diocese administration had no knowledge of Tell's allegations until recently.
Although he could not specifically comment any further because he had not seen a copy of the lawsuit, he noted in a statement that the allegations refer to incidents that occurred 25 years ago, involving a priest who has been dead 12 years.
"While the Diocese of Allentown regrets that any person may have been the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of any cleric, the Diocese does reserve its right to defend itself against the charges in this lawsuit," the statement says.
Tell claims McHale molested her from 1964 to 1984 in at least six states, as well as during a 1972 trip to Rome, where they met Pope Paul VI.
Tell attended Notre Dame Roman Catholic Church in Bethlehem as a child but moved to Smyrna, Del., in 1966. She said the abuse continued after she moved because McHale remained close with the family and often visited and took her on trips.
Law in Delaware created window for civil action
In Delaware, the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse victims was two years after the victim turned 18, said Jeffrey Anderson, one of Tell's attorneys.
But in 2007, a law was passed creating a two-year window in which victims could bring civil action in cases previously barred by the current statute, he said. The window is open until July.
Patrick Conlin, Tell's son, learned about the law last year and encouraged his mother to pursue action. She previously spoke with lawyers in 2002 about taking action but was told it was too late.
"She was abused for 20 years and spent another 20 years in silence and pain," said Conlin, 29, of New York City. "So this is a person who has been in pain for 80 percent of her life. This is her day to be heard."
The lawsuit claims the diocese was aware of the abuse against Tell and other minors but does not indicate who else or how many other cases there were.
The diocese has in place a "zero tolerance" policy on sexual abuse of minors by clerics that requires all allegations to be reported, according to its statement.
The diocese has also conducted criminal background checks and child abuse clearances on more than 17,000 clergy, staff and volunteers, it said.
Tell said McHale used her and her family's trust to force Tell into accepting the abuse well into adulthood.
She said she only gained the ability to start speaking out after suffering a mental breakdown in the 1980s that ended with her checking into a psychiatric ward.
Jeff Gundel, Tell's husband, said people have expressed skepticism about the claims because of how long the alleged abuses occurred.
"People wouldn't believe how you could be abused for 20 years, until she was 32 and had kids," he said. "But perpetrators know how to pick their victims and condition them, and she was certainly conditioned."
Julie Bortz, director of the Lehigh Valley chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who attended the news conference, said she expects others to come forward in response to Tell's lawsuit.
The suit, filed in New Castle Superior Court in Delaware, can only pertain to incidents that occurred in that state.
The complaint is seeking unspecified damages, Anderson said, which means a jury would determine what monetary compensation to award, if any.
Reporter Colin McEvoy can be reached at 610-258-7171 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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