Plaintiffs say Diocese of Pittsburgh, Catholic Church officials knew about and concealed child sexual abuse for decades

By Nicholas Malfitano
Penn Record
September 12, 2018

In the wake of the recent release of a state grand jury report on the subject of child sexual abuse at the hands of clergy in Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh-area man and two former area residents have launched legal action against the Diocese of Pittsburgh, claiming it fraudulently concealed their abuse and that of other victims.

James A. Saitta of Bethel Park, David M. Rebholz of Hope, R.I. and Heather L. Taylor of San Diego filed suit in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas on Sept. 6 and 7 versus The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, its Bishop David A. Zubik and Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, all of Pittsburgh.

Plaintiffs' Individual Allegations of Abuse

In his lawsuit, Saitta, now 51 years old, claims he was the victim of more than five years of sexual abuse at the hands of Rev. John S. Hoehl, spanning 1979 to 1985 and beginning when he was 12 years old. Hoehl was then serving at St. Francis Church on Pittsburgh’s North Side and became acquainted with the plaintiff and his family, who asked Hoehl to counsel Saitta prior to his entry to high school.

“Hoehl performed this counseling session with plaintiff alone his summer cabin in Somerset, Pennsylvania. Starting at this time, Hoehl began sexually abusing plaintiff, which included the following acts: Kissing, fondling and engaging in oral sex with plaintiff. This abuse continued on numerous occasions from 1979 until plaintiff graduated from Kiski Prep High School in 1985. The abuse occurred both at Hoehl’s summer cabin and at the rectory in Quigley Catholic High School,” Saitta's suit states.

During the period of alleged abuse, Hoehl became a priest and headmaster at the high school, located in Baden.

In May 1986, Hoehl was sent to the Southdown treatment facility in Aurora, Ontario, Canada, where he admitted that “he had been sexually involved with several high school students while headmaster at Quigley Catholic High School," leading the facility to provide the Diocese with a report that Hoehl was and is a pedophile, the suit says.

However, Hoehl was allowed to remain in the clergy for two more years until he resigned, and received medical benefits for three-and-a-half years after his resignation, the suit says. 

But rather than dismiss Hoehl from the ministry, the lawsuit says the Diocese concealed the evidence until the statute of limitations expired and even further, until the release of the grand jury report. Despite his pedophile past, Hoehl was found to be working as a youth counselor in West Virginia in 2001, the suit says.

Though Saitta was told in 2011 that the statute of limitations on his case had expired, he and his counsel argue that new information contained in the grand jury report compel further action. According to the report, the Diocese of Pittsburgh faced allegations against more than 300 priests suspected of molestation from over 1,000 victims, 20 which were levied against Hoehl.

Saitta accuses the defendants of enabling Hoehl and other pedophile priests to have unrestricted and unchaperoned access to children, assigning them and allowing them to reside and serve at Diocesan parishes and schools, failing to notify parents of children at new parish assignment of the priests’ prior criminal acts against children and transferring them to “restricted” ministerial positions without notifying parishioners or the parents of students, among other allegations.

“The suppression of the identity of dozens of pedophile priests and church employees was a fraudulent scheme to prevent the filing of the criminal and civil complaints against Diocesan defendants and the child predators they employed. It was not until the release of the grand jury’s report that plaintiff discovered Diocesan defendants’ fraud and their complicity in a course of conduct designed to conceal massive numbers of child predators within the Diocese who had unsupervised access to children. As a direct and proximate result of the Diocesan defendants’ conduct in concealing, suppressing and distorting their knowledge of the major problem of child predator priests within the Diocese, plaintiff suffered injuries and damages,” Saitta's suit reads.

Rebholz and Taylor made similar allegations, detailing their own abuse at the hands of Pittsburgh-area clergy.

Rebholz, now 52, says he attended St. Canice Church in Pittsburgh as a young boy with his family, where Rev. William P. O'Malley served as its Assistant Pastor. In 1978, when he was approximately 11 or 12 years old, Rebholz states O'Malley invited him to spend the night at the church. 

There, Rebholz alleges O'Malley gave him candy and beer, before removing his clothing and fondling his genitalia. Rebholz waited for O'Malley to fall asleep, then grabbed his clothes and left the church. Later, Rebholz accused O'Malley of showing him photographs of young boys his own age in their underwear and asking him if he could take similar photos of him. Rebholz refused and then attempted to avoid O'Malley at St. Canice whenever possible after these incidents occurred, according to the lawsuit.

O'Malley left St. Canice in September 1978 and was transferred to other assignments in the Diocese until December 1997. At that time, Rebholz spoke with several Diocese officials to discuss his allegations of abuse, which he says were met with unanimous denials. However, the grand jury report shows O'Malley was soon granted a leave of absence to seek treatment at St. Luke Institute's St. Francis Hospital in Maryland and Southdown Institute in Aurora, Ontario, Canada, the suit says.

“On Jan. 12, 1998, Wuerl received a memorandum advising that O'Malley was given a diagnosis of ephebophilia based on his admitted sexual interest in adolescents and that O'Malley was at high risk for seeking emotional gratification with adolescents. Despite this diagnosis, Wuerl sent a memorandum of a meeting with O'Malley a few days later, where he stated the Diocese's desire to help [O'Malley] in whatever way we can do to all of the things that are necessary to present him for priestly ministry,” Rebholz's suit reads.

O'Malley remained in Southdown through October 1998, until Wuerl sent a letter to O'Malley appointing him as Canonical Consultant in the Tribunal of the Diocese, complete with continued residence at St. John Vianney, the suit says. Despite a letter from Rebholz admonishing the Diocese for failing to act in reference to the alleged abuse he suffered, he never received a response and O'Malley continued to serve in ministry before resigning in 2003, the suit says.

However, six additional victims came forward with allegations of abuse at O'Malley's hands between 2002 and 2006, with three of those reports stating the abuse had taken place as recently as 1999 – after O'Malley had been reinstated to the ministry by Wuerl.

Taylor, now 45, states she attended St. Gabriel's Church and St. Gabriel's Sorrowful Mother School in Pittsburgh, where she came into contact with Rev. Lawrence O'Connell, Rev. Edward Huff and Diocese Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua.

Between 1977 and 1979, when she was 5 to 7 years old, Taylor alleges O'Connell fondled her on more than six separate occasions on top of her St. Gabriel school uniform, while inside the living quarters of the rectory. O'Connell and a resident nun both allegedly threatened Taylor that if she were to tell anyone what had transpired, she “would go down the drain in the bathtub.”

According to Taylor, a few years later, Huff allegedly invited her to the rectory to see the parish dog. When Taylor arrived, Huff is said to have taken her to the living quarters and fondled her, putting his hands up her school uniform into her vaginal area. Abuse in this manner from Huff allegedly took place more than six times between 1983 and 1984. Moreover, Huff supposedly told Taylor not to tell her parents or anyone else, or he would forbid her from attending her confirmation and regular mass. Both Huff and O'Connell, her alleged abusers, later performed Taylor's confirmation ceremony.

Finally, Taylor states during a visit to St. Gabriel's Church at an unnamed time, then-Bishop Bevilacqua took her behind the partition in the lunchroom and groped her chest. All of the alleged abuses to Taylor took place during the ages of 5 and 13.

The suit goes on to say in 2004, both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published news stories concerning lawsuits filed against the Diocese for concealing sexual abuse by priests, including O'Connell. But Taylor was not made aware of these stories, since she had moved from Pittsburgh to San Diego in 1998.

Several of Huff's victims also came forward reporting abuse in 1992, and Huff was removed from assignment on two occasions to undergo treatment at St. Michael's Community Program in St. Louis.

“On Feb. 27, 1992, he was first removed from his assignment at St. Anselm, but in October 1992, he was assigned to the Office for Chaplains and Campus Ministry, where he was responsible for supervising chaplains at hospitals and nursing home facilities. He was then placed on administrative leave on Jan. 7, 1993, before resigning from the active ministry on Feb. 16, 1993,” according to the lawsuit.

“Huff eventually pled guilty in Lawrence County for conduct that occurred while he was a priest in the active ministry, and he was sentenced to serve 18 months to five years in prison. He was paroled on Aug. 5, 1999. A handwritten note in Huff's file stated that Huff 'admitted to touching 500 kids and targeting at least 1,200.”

Despite the allegations, the suit states Huff continued to be involved with ministry as recently as June 14, 2015. When altar server training was being held at St. Joseph The Worker in New Castle on that day, Huff came into the church and asked a teenage male if he would like to go to a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game with him in the future. The teenager declined the offer, and his mother contacted church officials about the incident.

For counts of fraud, constructive fraud and conspiracy, the plaintiffs are seeking damages, jointly and severally, in an amount in excess of the jurisdictional limits requiring arbitration, plus interest as allowed by law and costs, in addition to a trial by jury in these matters.

The plaintiffs are represented by Alan H. Perer of Swensen & Perer, in Pittsburgh.

The case docket does not list counsel for defendants, but it does show Joseph W. Selep of Zimmer Kunz in Pittsburgh, accepted service of the litigation's Writ of Summons.

Diocese of Pittsburgh Responds to Grand Jury Report, Calls For “Year of Repentance”

Along with the Diocese, current Diocese Bishop Zubik and Cardinal Wuerl, himself formerly Diocese Bishop, are also listed as defendants.

On Sept. 11, Zubik called for a “Year of Repentance” in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, given the revelations contained in the grand jury report.

“Faced with the sinful actions of the members of our own ranks of the clergy, who are called to manifest the example of Christ, we feel both shame and sorrow, and are reminded of our own sinfulness and the need for mercy,” Zubik said in an issued statement.



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