Erie nuns knew about abusive sister decades ago
By Ed Palattella
October 30, 2018
Original actions taken against the late Sr. Mary Carmel Skeabeck “appear to be insufficient by today’s standards,” according to Sisters of St. Joseph. Skeabeck was added to diocese’s list of accused on Monday.
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania started investigating child sexual-abuse allegations against one of its deceased members in May.
A complaint from an abuse victim triggered the probe.
The findings led the Catholic Diocese of Erie on Monday to place the nun, Sr. Mary Carmel Skeabeck, who died in 2015, on the diocese’s growing list of priests and laypeople credibly accused of child sexual abuse and other misconduct with minors since the 1940s.
Skeabeck, the first nun to be placed on the diocese’s list, “sexually abused a student on numerous occasions in the late 1950s while teaching at Villa Maria Academy” in Erie, the Sisters of St. Joseph, citing its investigation, said on Monday.
Warning signs about Skeabeck, however, had surfaced long before May.
In a pattern that has been repeated in the clergy sex-abuse crisis throughout the United States, the Sisters of St. Joseph knew of reports about Skeabeck at the time the abuse occurred.
Yet the religious order allowed Skeabeck to remain in ministry in schools and other institutions throughout the 13-county Catholic Diocese of Erie until she retired in 2001, 14 years before she died at 91.
In her final assignment in ministry, according to information the sisters released on Monday, Skeabeck served from 1979 to 2001 at the all-girls Villa Maria Academy high school, where she taught until 1993 and then volunteered in several departments.
Skeabeck first taught at Villa in 1958-59, when she was in her mid-30s. That was the period, the sisters said, when the abuse occurred. Skeabeck entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1942, when she was 18.
Though the religious order launched the probe of Skeabeck based on the complaint made in May about the abuse at Villa, “evidence gathered during the investigation does suggest that reports also were made at the time the abuse was occurring,” a spokeswoman for the Sisters of St. Joseph told the Erie Times-News in an email. “While the evidence also suggests that some corrective actions were taken, those actions appear to be insufficient by today’s standards.”
The spokeswoman, Stephanie Hall, said the Sisters of St. Joseph have received only the one complaint against Skeabeck, but that the sisters are continuing to investigate and are encouraging anyone with information to make a report.
Additional information could also help the Sisters of St. Joseph learn more about how the nuns handled complaints against Skeabeck years ago. The diocese has placed on its list the names of those who failed to act on credible abuse complaints, including Bishop Alfred M. Watson, who headed the diocese from 1969 to 1982 and died at 81 in 1990.
“Key individuals are deceased, so we reiterate our call for anyone with knowledge of Sister Mary Carmel’s misconduct (or other abuse) to come forward,” Hall said.
“At this time, we are just looking into this situation that was recently brought to our attention,” Hall also said. “At the same time, we strongly encourage anyone who has been abused by anyone, certainly by anyone connected with the Sisters of St. Joseph, to come forward and report the abuse.”
To assist those who might have information, the Sisters of St. Joseph released Skeabeck’s assignment history and photograph. Skeabeck’s given name was Charlotte Skeabeck. Her religious name was Sr. Mary Carmel.
“We understand that no apology, investigation or counseling will ever undo what has happened,” the sisters said in a statement. “We humbly offer our sincere efforts to fully cooperate with law enforcement, shine light on past misconduct, aid in healing and take steps to ensure that today’s children do not have to endure any abuse now or in the future.”
The sisters and the diocese
The Sisters of St. Joseph and other orders of women religious need the bishop’s approval to operate within the Catholic Diocese of Erie. But the orders are their own communities with their own leadership structure and assignment responsibilities, which is why the Sisters of St. Joseph and the diocese conducted separate investigations into allegations of child sexual abuse.
The sisters and the diocese still took similar paths. To conduct the probe of Skeabeck, the sisters said, the order hired the Pittsburgh law firm of K&L Gates — the diocese’s law firm for abuse allegations. Diocesan spokeswoman Anne Marie-Welsh said the diocese recommended K&L Gates to the sisters.
Under the direction of Bishop Lawrence Persico, the Catholic Diocese of Erie hired K&L Gates in late 2016 to investigate child sexual abuse among clergy and laypeople and to formulate its list. Persico released the first iteration of the list in April and has updated it regularly, including on Monday.
Persico released the list — unprecedented in its scope among Catholic dioceses because it includes laypeople as well as clergy — in advance of the August release of the devastating statewide grand jury report on child sexual abuse in six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, including the Erie diocese.
The Sisters of St. Joseph received its complaint against Skeabeck shortly after Persico released the diocese’s first list. The diocese’s investigation of child sexual abuse, like the sisters’, is ongoing but much wider in scope. The diocese has said it has spent about $4 million on its probe, with the money coming from investment earnings and budget surpluses. The Sisters of St. Joseph at this time do not know “a cumulative cost” for its investigation, said Hall, the sisters’ spokeswoman.
“Our hearts and prayers go out to all victims and survivors of sexual abuse, especially the survivor whose courageous report has brought us to this moment,” the sisters said in their statement. “We hear you, we believe you and want to put an end to child abuse forever.”
Skeabeck is one of five new people the Catholic Diocese of Erie added to the list of credibly accused on Monday. Persico has updated the list based on information the diocese has received from the public and other sources.
The updated list, which the diocese posted, now has 76 names — 49 clergy, 26 laypeople and one nun. The first list had 51 names — 34 priests and 17 laypeople.
Also added to the list of credibly accused, according to the diocese, are three laypeople, who are all living: Ronald Keith Allison, of Erie, a former lay teacher; Lewis A. Kocher, of Springfield, Ohio, a former choir director; and James E. Herzing, of St. Marys, a former lay teacher.
The diocese added one priest to the list of credibly accused: the Rev. Patrick J. Healy, who is deceased. The diocese said Healy was able to function as a priest because the abuse was reported after his death.
In addition, the diocese on Monday listed one deceased priest as under investigation. He is the Rev. Robert A. Pudlo, accused of failing to act on credible reports of abuse. The diocese will decide whether to place Pudlo’s name on the final list following the results of the investigation.
Among all Monday’s additions to the list, Skeabeck’s name stood out — because of her status as a nun with a long history of being in contact with students.
“She spent nearly all of her religious life in the ministry of education,” according to Skeabeck’s obituary. It said she “also spent many years teaching religious education in various parishes of the Erie diocese.”