Woman Sues Allentown Diocese over Effort to "Smear" Her over Sexual Abuse Claims
By Peter Hall
September 12, 2018
A woman described as a victim in Pennsylvania’s grand jury report on sexual abuse by clergy has sued the Allentown Diocese over a “smear” campaign by church officials, including Bishop Alfred Schlert, that was described in the statewide report.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Lehigh County Court on behalf of Juliann Bortz of Lower Macungie Township, alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation. It says the effort by church officials to gather “irrelevant, unrelated [or] false ‘dirt’ ” on Bortz to discredit her reports of abuse by the Rev. Francis Fromholzer was unknown to her until it was revealed in the grand jury report last month.
“She was distraught when she read the grand jury report and found out what the church had done,” Harrisburg attorney Benjamin Andreozzi said. “In essence, she was revictimized.”
Instead of taking Bortz’s accusation seriously and investigating Fromholzer, the suit says, “the diocese immediately ‘attempted to undermine and discredit Juliann and her family.’ ”
After the Boston Globe published its Spotlight investigation of sexual abuse by clergy in the Boston Archdiocese in 2002, Bortz met with Allentown Diocese officials. Even as Bortz recounted Fromholzer’s assaults, an outside attorney for the diocese, Tom Traud, gathered discrediting information about Bortz and shared it with Schlert, then vicar general under Bishop Edward Cullen, and Monsignor Gerald Gobitas, the grand jury report says.
In a statement Wednesday, the Allentown Diocese said it provided the information in the grand jury report in response to a subpoena and did not disclose it publicly. The diocese also said it did not solicit the information and denied investigating or attempting to discredit Bortz. The diocese’s statement says it never acted on the information and, after meeting with Bortz in 2002, removed the priest she accused from ministry. It added that law enforcement was already aware of Bortz’s allegations.
“Bishop Schlert has always viewed victims as sincere, dignified and extremely courageous for coming forward,” the statement said. “He has always treated them with respect, and always will. For those who suggest otherwise, nothing could be further from the truth.”
The grand jury report states Fromholzer voluntarily resigned after church officials confronted him with Bortz’s allegations. The report also says it was Bortz who reported Fromholzer to Allentown police and the Lehigh County district attorney’s office, but officials did not file charges because the statute of limitations had expired.
Bortz and another unidentified woman testified before the grand jury about being sexually abused by Fromholzer in 1964 or 1965, when they were freshmen at Allentown Central Catholic High School. Fromholzer was a religion teacher there from 1959 to 1965, according to the report.
Bortz tried to report the abuse to other priests in the 1980s, the suit says.
According to the grand jury report, Traud gathered the information about Bortz from a woman who claimed to be a close high school friend of hers and who was related to the Rev. Leo Fink, founder of Allentown Central Catholic. Among other things, she told the lawyer that Bortz had once been a go-go dancer. Traud reported the information in a September 2002 fax to Schlert and Gobitas, the report says.
The pattern of investigating Bortz continued through 2004, when she filed a civil lawsuit against the diocese, the report says. Traud reported in a January 2004 letter to Schlert and Gobitas that he had received information from another lawyer that Bortz’s daughter was a witness in a murder case. He speculated that Bortz became involved either as “a mother looking out for her child,” or “a woman who repeatedly wants her 15 minutes of fame.” In an April 2004 letter, Traud informed the diocese that Bortz’s husband was the brainchild behind the Christian Motorcyclists Association.
Traud, who has worked as outside counsel for the diocese since the 1980s, was fired by Allentown City Council from his position as city solicitor because of information in the report.
“Who we choose to work for us is a statement of the values and the ideals that we hold,” said Councilman Courtney Robinson, who made the motion to remove Traud. “I do not believe the words attributed to attorney Traud represent anything that I as a citizen or as a member of this body want our attorney or legal adviser to represent.”
When Bortz discovered the diocese’s effort to discredit her last month, she was “beyond devastated, felt betrayed and suffered severe psychological/psychiatric distress,” the suit says.
“She wants an apology and she wants answers about whose idea it was to smear her name,” Andreozzi said Wednesday, adding that Bortz would seek monetary damages only if the diocese is unwilling to comply with her request.
The goal of the suit is to have the diocese waive attorney-client privilege to allow Traud to testify about who directed the effort to discredit Bortz and why the church failed to investigate her allegations against Fromholzer, Andreozzi said. The suit also demands an apology directly from the bishop to Bortz to be published in a “widely disseminated publication.”
Bortz testified that Fromholzer abused her on a trip to the Poconos with her friend in 1964 when the girls were 13 or 14. The friend also told the grand jury that Fromholzer kissed her and touched her inappropriately on the trip to the Poconos.
The second victim was expelled from school, though the report doesn’t specify which school, after reporting the abuse to her principal. The principal, the Rev. Robert M. Forst, told her to repeat the “made up” story to her father, who was known to be abusive. The man responded by beating his daughter, the girl told the grand jury.
Bortz testified that after the trip to the Poconos, Fromholzer continued to touch her inappropriately in school and humiliate her in front of other students. The abuse stopped only when she moved on to 10th grade and was no longer in the same building as Fromholzer, the report says.