Revelations of 85-year-old woman sexually abused by priest signals crisis dates back centuries

By Ivey Dejesus
Patriot Ledger
July 31, 2019

The revelations of an 85-year-old woman who was sexually abused by a priest in the 1940s signal the potential that the clergy sex abuse crisis dates back centuries. The woman, who is referred to as Jane Doe, was abused by a Diocese of Scranton priest who was ordained in 1898.
Photo by Jeff Swensen

The investigations into clergy sex abuse in this country have generally gone back several decades.

Last year’s grand jury report into widespread clergy sex abuse in Pennsylvania, for instance, went back as far as the late 1940s.

On Wednesday the revelations of an 85-year-old victim out of the Diocese of Scranton points to the sobering possibility that the crisis dates far back into other centuries.

The woman, who is being referred to as “Jane Doe,” was six years old in 1940 when the late Rev. Martin J. Fleming began to sexually molest her, according to her attorney, Mitchell Garabedian.

Fleming, who at the time was assigned to Holy Name Parish in Swoyerville, was ordained in 1898. Jane Doe was a parishioner at Holy Name Parish.

Jane Doe is not filing a lawsuit, but wanted to make public the priest’s name, said Garabedian, who has represented hundreds of victims in the Archdiocese of Boston.

“She wanted her perpetrator's name out there,” he said. “He was ordained in 1898. There is no telling how many children he molested. It’s indicative of how far back the clergy sex abuse crisis goes back.”

On Wednesday, victims advocates, including Robert M. Hoatson, president of Road to Recovery, gathered in Scranton in support of the 85-year-old woman.

Fleming, a priest in the Diocese of Scranton in the 1940s, was identified in the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report. Doe was the victim “speaking” in the report. Garabedian said Fleming twice sexually assaulted the then six-year-old girl after her mother passed away.

“She has been attempting to heal ever since,” he said.

“Jane Doe” reported the abuse in 2006 to then Scranton Auxiliary Bishop John Dougherty. The woman said the bishop told her to consult a counselor or “a trusted female friend.”

Jane Doe recently received a low six-figure monetary award from the Diocese of Scranton’s compensation program.

Garabedian said potential victims dating to the turn of the last century and into the early decades following would have had no recourse against predatory priests.

“ I had a client in Boston who was abused in the 1930s Boston and when I asked him if he had ever reported the priest, he said, ‘Are you kidding. They would have killed me. You couldn’t talk like that about a priest.’"

The investigation into abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002 found that local law enforcement at times had looked the other way to protect powerful church officials. A similar pattern was uncovered here in Pennsylvania out of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown as well as the cases documented by the 40th Statewide Grand Jury report.

Garabedian said that given the fact that Fleming was ordained in 1898 and passed away in 1950, he would have had plenty of opportunities to sexually abuse other children.

“Given my experience in representing victims of pedophile priests...I know they sexually abuse as many children as they can and as soon as they can, and the supervisors are complicit,” Garabedian said. “The respect of the Catholic Church had back then was ultimate.”

Released in August 2018, the 900-plus page report of the 40th Statewide Grand Jury released by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro delivered a blistering rebuke of Catholic officials for their failure to protect children from predatory priests.

Investigators identified 301 members of the clergy by name as having allegedly committed criminal or morally reprehensible conduct against more than 1,000 victims who were sexually molested as children.

The grand jury recommended an overhaul to Pennsylvania law in order to protect children from predators and also give adult victims an opportunity to seek legal recourse. The Legislature has yet to enact any reforms.

Victims advocates who are calling on legislative reforms fear that time is running out for elderly victims.



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