Lawsuit accuses two priests of sexual abuse

By Peter Smith
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
August 20, 2019

A Pittsburgh man is suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and Holy Family Institute, alleging he was subjected to the “torture” of sexual abuse by two priests when he was a boy living at the Emsworth children’s home in the 1970s.

The lawsuit was filed Aug. 16 in Allegheny County and accuses two priests of sexually molesting him on multiple times.

The lawsuit identifies the alleged perpetrators as the Rev. Larry Smith and a “Father Gerdes.”

Father Smith is a retired diocesan priest. A diocesan statement said as of Tuesday morning, it had not been served with the lawsuit, but it said Father Smith would not engage in public ministry until the diocese could learn more about the allegation. Father Smith “categorically denies the allegation,” the diocese said.

The lawsuit doesn’t give a first name for Father Gerdes but claims he belonged to a religious order, the Spiritans (of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit). However, the order’s Province of the United States says it never had a priest with that or a similar name.

A deceased priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Rev. Joseph C. Girdis, served as chaplain at Holy Family Institute in the 1970s, according to Post-Gazette archives. He died in 2003.

Lawsuits give one side of a case.

The lawsuit recounts in detail the findings of the 2018 statewide grand jury report into sexual abuse in Pittsburgh and five other Pennsylvania dioceses. Neither priest was named in the report.

The lawsuit says that although the abuse happened long ago, the statute of limitations should be tolled, or waived, because the diocese had until 2018 concealed a pattern of cover-up as detailed in the grand jury report. 

It accuses the diocese and the institute of fraud, civil conspiracy and the infliction of emotional distress, claiming the defendants “knew or should have known” that the alleged perpetrators were a “danger to children.”

The causes of action are similar to those of other lawsuits against Catholic dioceses that are working their through the Pennsylvania court system. Those lawsuits were boosted by a Superior Court precedent set earlier this year when it allowed a plaintiff to bring charges of conspiracy and fraud against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. 

The new lawsuit says the plaintiff was 12 years old and a ward of the state when he was placed at Holy Family in Emsworth.

It alleges in graphic detail the “torture” inflicted on him by two priests.

It says he was an altar boy and was assigned to clean Father Gerdes’ residential quarters. It alleges the priest fondled him in his brown Mercedes, forced him to perform oral sex and attempted to rape him anally. It says the priest abused him more than 10 times.

The lawsuit says the priest gave the boy money for candy and further convinced him that “his immortal soul would be condemned should he reveal the abuse.”

It alleges Father Smith visited the institute numerous times and began to touch the boy inappropriately, escalating the behavior to forced oral sex.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh said in a statement it knows of no other allegations against either priest, although its first indication of this case came when someone accused them during the diocese’s ongoing process of providing out-of-court settlements with those bringing claims to an independent set of evaluators.

“The diocese is aware that someone registered with the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Fund ...  and named Fr. Larry Smith and Fr. Girdis,” the diocese said. “Prior to that time, the individual had contacted the diocese, but declined to provide sufficient information for the diocese to know what was being alleged or begin a review of the matter. The diocese immediately notified the District Attorney of the IRCP registration.”

The diocese said it “relies upon discussions with the accuser to obtain the information necessary to review an allegation. The diocese has reached out multiple times to the accuser in question asking for him to have a conversation with the Victim Assistance Coordinator to provide sufficient information so that an allegation can be recognized and a process can begin. The individual has not responded to those requests. The diocese renews its invitation to the accuser to come forward and discuss this matter with us. Fr. Larry Smith is retired and will not engage in public ministry until this matter has been resolved.”

Mike Manko, spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, confirmed that the diocese reported the claims against the two priests earlier this year.

Sister Linda Yankoski, chief executive officer of Holy Family Institute, declined to comment on the lawsuit.



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