Countian Says Priest Abused Her for Decades

By Cindy Stauffer
Lancaster Online
May 14, 2009

Sharon Tell was 16 when her family moved to Lancaster, living in a nice, brick home in School Lane Hills.

She enrolled at Lancaster Catholic High School, where she worked on the yearbook staff and sang in the choir.

The dark-haired girl with the shy smile seemed like a regular teen in 1968. But she says she had a dark secret.

Her family's good friend, the Rev. James McHale, their former parish priest from Bethlehem, had been molesting her since age 12, she says.

The abuse, which moved from groping to sexual intercourse, took place at the family's home here, and on vacations to other states, and even on a family trip to see the pope in Rome in 1973, Tell alleges.

The abuse allegedly would continue until Tell was in her early 30s, a married woman with three children.

Wednesday, Tell, 56, now of Millersville, filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Allentown. The suit alleges that the Catholic church organization hid McHale's abuse of children and allowed him to serve in other parishes.

In a statement released Wednesday, the diocese said it had not seen a copy of Tell's lawsuit, but said, "The allegations made in this lawsuit announced today are about incidents from at least 25 years ago and reference a priest who has been deceased for almost 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."

Tell said today that McHale befriended her family when they were members of Notre Dame Parish in Bethlehem, where he was the priest.

She said he was a regular visitor to their home, arriving on his days off and going on vacations with them.

She said the abuse began when he would go into her bedroom at night. Her parents, she said, thought the priest was talking to her about her day.

"In that time," she said, "we thought the priest was next to God. When I finally told my father what had happened, many, many years later, he was flabbergasted. He just couldn't even imagine this."

A 12-year-old child when it began, Tell said she had no idea at the time what to do about the abuse. She pretended to be asleep. As the years went on, she said she reverted to being that 12-year-old when McHale continued their sexual relationship.

"People say, 'OK, you were 32, what was that about? How could you let this go on?' What happened was I was conditioned at 12, it started at 12, I always went back, even when I was in my 20s and 30s, to that 12-year-old child who just wanted to pretend she was sleeping and didn't know what to do about what was going on."

Tell's attorney, Jeff Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., said she could not file a lawsuit until 2007, when Delaware passed a law opening a window to file cases otherwise barred by a statute of limitations. The lawsuit was filed in Delaware, where Tell's family lived for a time and where some of the abuse allegedly took place.

Anderson said, "We have a really good reason to believe there are others (victims). At this point, they have not identified who they are and we don't know whether they are going to come forward. ... This gives them permission. They blame themselves and suffer in secrecy, silence and blame."

Tell said she had a breakdown in the late 1980s, after her mother died, and again in 1992. She said she finally approached church officials, eventually going to them three times.

She said she feared McHale, who broke ties with her family after her mother died, was abusing other children. In 1993 and 2001, she spoke to officials with the Allentown diocese.

By the second visit, McHale already had died.

In its statement, the diocese said that its aim is to prevent the abuse of children and youth, and to "respond quickly to meet the pastoral needs of those who have been abused in the past."

The diocese said it reports all allegations to civil authorities and has a "zero tolerance" of abuse.

McHale was pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Bath when he died in 1997. In addition to his post at Notre Dame, he was director of Holy Family Manor in Bethlehem, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul in Minersville, Schuylkill County, and assistant pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus in West Reading.

Staff writer Cindy Stauffer can be reached at or 481-6024.


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