Sex Abuse Lawsuit Names Deceased Asheville Priest

By Clarke Morrison
June 2, 2009

ASHEVILLE — A Philadelphia man claims in a lawsuit that he was sexually molested as a child by two priests at the Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville.

One of the perpetrators was the church’s pastor, Father Justin Paul Pechulis, who died in 1983, according to the suit filed Monday in Buncombe County Superior Court.

The complaint, which seeks damages for emotional and physical abuse, alleges that Pechulis and retired Father John McCole of Philadelphia forced teenager Steven Souder to engage in group oral sex during a trip to Asheville in the late 1970s.

The suit names the Diocese of Charlotte, which governs Catholic churches across Western North Carolina, and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. It contends church officials engaged in a conspiracy to protect Pechulis and McCole and other pedophile priests.

“They not only knew about it, they condoned it and covered it up,” said Jay Abramowitch, an attorney representing Souder, who the lawsuit states was 15 or 16 at the time of the abuse. “He was tremendously harmed by this.”

David Hains, spokesman for the Diocese of Charlotte, said diocese officials would have no comment until they have a chance to review the complaint.

Pechulis was pastor at Basilica of St. Lawrence from 1977 until his unexpected death in the church rectory in 1983 at the age of 53. A death certificate lists the cause as hypertension and heart disease. At the time the church was called St. Lawrence Roman Catholic Church.

An employee at St. Lawrence referred questions about the lawsuit to office manager Lu-Winn Rutherford, but said Rutherford wouldn’t be available for comment until later in the week.

Barbara Dorris, outreach director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, praised Souder for bringing the complaint.

“We commend Mr. Souder for coming forward, disclosing his name and taking legal action to expose predator Catholic priests and corrupt church officials,” Dorris said. “It takes considerable strength and courage to step up, speak out and warn others about dangerous clerics.”

The lawsuit alleges that as Souder’s priest, McCole took advantage of his “vulnerability, sexual naivete and trust” and sexually abused the boy on multiple occasions. During the summer of 1977 or 1978, McCole took Souder to the rectory of the Basilica of St. Lawrence and introduced him to his friend from seminary, Pechulis.

At the church the two priests engaged in sex acts involving the boy while a third, unidentified man watched and masturbated, the complaint states.

Souder repressed memories of the abuse because of mental illness until he received a letter from the archdiocese in October 2007 “discussing the sexual abuse crisis involving its priests.” Abramowitch said that’s important because North Carolina law doesn’t count a period of repressed memory against the statute of limitations on the filing of such lawsuits, while Pennsylvania does.

“If it can be demonstrated the victim suffered from repressed memory, the statute of limitations doesn’t start running (in North Carolina) until the memory was regained,” said Abramowitch, who specializes in representing victims of pedophile priests.

The lawsuit also contends that Souder was an altar boy for the late Cardinal John Krol, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at the time. When Souder confided to Krol that McCole had been abusing him, Krol told him that he was not being touched inappropriately. “That’s just how men behave with each other,” Krol told the boy, according to the lawsuit.

“Both the Diocese and the Archdiocese knew that many of their priests had a sexual interest in children and more specifically had knowledge of the sexual abuse of minors by priests,” the complaint states. The church has “systematically concealed the danger that predatory priests such as Father McCole and Father Pechulis presented by misrepresenting them as priests in good standing…”

In comments to the Philadelphia Daily News, McCole said he knew Souder, but denied the abuse allegations.

Hains said the Diocese of Charlotte since 2002 has had a sexual abuse awareness training program called Protecting God’s Children.

“We don’t tolerate sexual abuse on behalf of church workers or even volunteers,” he said.


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