Sex-abuse Allegation: Catholic Diocese Faces Lawsuits by Two Different Victims

By Walter Pacheco and Sarah Lundy
Orlando Sentinel
May 12, 2010,0,6008434.story

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orlando is facing two lawsuits this month that accuse priests of molesting boys years ago in Central Florida.

One victim this afternoon held a press conference outside the Orange County Courthouse after filing court papers.

"I want to let people be aware that it is going on in our churches and people do need to be aware of it," said Jason Bell, 34, a Volusia County painter.

He described how former priest Richard Emerson molested him during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He said the abuse started when he was 11 years old. Emerson provided him and his friends with alcohol and showed them pornography and took advantage of them. The abuse took place over several years.

"Then, I thought maybe I would burn in hell. It was impossible to come against a priest," he said. "Now, I have children of my own. I don't want anything like that to happen to them."

Bell was in his late-20s when he first told someone — his mother — about the abuse.

"I had kept it deep down inside and didn't tell anyone," he said.

Sharing what happened now is helping him cope with his past. His experience made him withdrawn and hard to trust people, especially trust anyone with his children.

"I admire Mr. Bell. It takes a lot of courage," said his attorney, Joseph Saunders, who has represented other victims of abuse. "I applaud him for standing up for the rights of children."

Emerson met Bell at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Orlando, where the priest served from 1987 to 1990. Emerson also served in St. Peter's Catholic Church in DeLand and Holy Family Catholic Church in Orlando in 1990 and 1991.

While in Central Florida, Emerson was on temporary assignment from Indiana and returned there in 1991. The Diocese of Gary placed Emerson administrative leave in December 2004 after sexual abuse allegations. He resigned as a priest in 2006. It's unclear where he lives now.

Several other victims, including three from Central Florida, have filed lawsuits against Emerson, Saunders said.

"We trust the alleged victim's attorney will allow us to meet with the alleged victim to discuss his situation," according to a released statement by the diocese of Orlando.

A second lawsuit against a different priest was filed in the Orange County Courthouse earlier this month.

Vernon F. Uhran, the former priest at St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church in Altamonte Springs, plied a 14-year-old altar boy with alcohol on a "spiritual retreat" to a beach in 1970, according to the lawsuit filed by an Orlando man.

The priest is accused of using "this opportunity to sexually abuse [the victim] repeatedly."

The victim's attorney, Douglas Jeffrey, said his client did not want to be publicly named.

Uhran, who had preached in at least six Central Florida parishes and Catholic schools before he was removed from the ministry in 1992, is no stranger to allegations of sexual abuse. The former priest already has cost the Diocese at least $1 million in out-of-court settlements.

"Unfortunately, this is a sad situation because it is a credible allegation," Diocese spokeswoman Carol Brinati said at a news conference Wednesday inside the Orlando Chancery. "We pray for this particular [victim]."

According to the lawsuit against Uhran, he had gained the confidence of the victim's parents and was a "frequent guest for dinner" at the victim's home in Altamonte Springs.

The two had developed a "close relationship…based on trust and confidence in Father Uhran's status as a priest." The victim's attorney said Uhran manipulated the boys using that trust.

"Uhran was authorized to touch [the victim] and display affection in a manner consistent with providing care, spiritual guidance and leadership," the lawsuit shows. But he "converted his authorized touching into the sexual assault."

Uhran had served at St. Mary Magdalen and Bishop Moore High School from 1969 to 1973, the Church of the Resurrection and Santa Fe High School in Lakeland from 1973 to 1976 and St. Theresa Catholic Church in Belleview from 1976 to 1981.

He spent a decade in the Dominican Republic followed by brief stays at Melbourne Central Catholic and the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Former Orlando Bishop Norbert Dorsey removed Uhran from the ministry in 1992 after an allegation of sexual abuse.

Court records released by the national organization SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, show that Uhran asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege nearly 90 times in a videotaped deposition dated Aug. 8, 2008.

The group's founder and president Barbara Blaine said Uhran's refusal to answer such questions as whether he had allegedly sodomized and performed oral sex on more than a dozen boys raises questions.

"He basically acknowledged that some crime has been committed here," Blaine said.

The lawsuit also accuses Diocese officials of knowing about sexual-abuse allegations against Uhran since the mid-1960's and doing nothing about it.

"[Uhran] was not removed from the active ministry or otherwise disciplined. Instead, the Diocese of Orlando continued to permit Father Uhran to have unfettered access to minors," legal documents show.

In 2006, the Diocese of Orlando settled two lawsuits involving Uhran for $250,000. The lawsuit claimed Diocese officials knew about the allegations since 1969, but did nothing about them.

The dioceses of Orlando and St. Augustine paid $1.5 million in 2005 to settle another lawsuit against Uhran.

Saunders, Bell's attorney, is poised to file another lawsuit against a different priest with a different victim. The diocese denied those allegations and called that potential lawsuit "false and malicious."

Walter Pacheco can be reached at or 407-420-6262. Sarah Lundy can be reached at or 407-420-6218.


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