4 men sue Pennsylvania diocese, including 2 bishops, for sex abuse cover-up
By Lisa Bourne
September 03, 2019
|Bishop Joseph Bambera, April, 2015. |
Four men filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Scranton, Pa., and its current and former bishops August 28, claiming sexual abuse by a priest and cover-up by the diocese.
The men say Father Michael Pulicare sexually assaulted them as children and accuse the diocese of conspiracy and fraud in concealing widespread abuse that Church leaders knew about for decades, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reports.
Pulicare died in 1999. The statute of limitations to file suit on the abuse has expired, as Pennsylvania law requires that childhood sexual abuse victims file lawsuits prior to turning 30. The men, some of whom are in their fifties, are instead suing over the alleged cover-up, the report said, and they are part of an increasing number of alleged clergy abuse victims pursuing this alternate course to challenge the Church in court.
At least eight similar lawsuits have been filed in Pennsylvania since a state appeals court ruled in June that one suit accusing the Altoona-Johnstown diocese of a conspiracy to cover up abuse could proceed, the WSJ report said.
“Given the situation in Pennsylvania with the statute of limitations, this is a major development,” Richard Serbin, the attorney representing the plaintiff in the Altoona case said. Serbin said he has heard from lawyers all over Pennsylvania interested in filing similar suits.
Attorney for the Scranton plaintiffs Kevin Quinn said the Pennsylvania grand jury report released last year found that the Diocese of Scranton had engaged in a conspiracy, local ABC affiliate WNEP reports, which includes current bishop Joseph Bambera.
“We know from the grand jury report that Bishop Bambera, while he played an administrative role as vicar for the diocese, was specifically involved in relocating a priest known to have sexually abused a minor to a different location,” Quinn said.
The Diocese of Scranton said via a statement that the lawsuit against it relies “on a novel legal theory in an attempt to circumvent the long-established statute of limitations in Pennsylvania. That theory relies entirely on a recent case that remains on appeal.”
“The actions alleged in these suits took place decades ago and long before Bishop Joseph Bambera was ordained bishop in 2010,” it said. “The independent Survivor Compensation Program [is where] survivors of child sexual abuse can be compensated swiftly and without the rigors and delays of the litigation process.”
The Scranton diocese is one of seven of the state’s eight dioceses establish victim compensation.
In exchange for the compensation, the victims must agree not to sue the Church.
Church leaders have said the programs are efforts to make amends, but critics say they amount to the Church simply trying to limit legal liability, offering far less money than plaintiffs have won in court.
The Altoona-Johnstown case is expected to be appealed to the state supreme court, the WSJ report said, and could bring the new approach to holding the Church legally accountable for clergy sex abuse to a halt.
“I don’t expect the ... case to stand up to further appeal,” said Matthew Haverstick, a lawyer representing the Diocese of Harrisburg in one of the cases alleging conspiracy. “The idea that all these actors conspired and talked to each other strains credulity.”
The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown declined to comment to the WSJ on the litigation.
The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office released its grand jury report last August detailing sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children on the part of more than 300 Catholic clergymen in six of the state’s eight dioceses. Since then, lawmakers across the U.S. have been exploring possible litigation against the Church related to abuse and its cover-up.
At least five states and Washington, D.C. have lifted the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse this year, according to the WSJ, opening the door to a flood of litigation from decades-old abuse allegations.
More than 400 lawsuits were filed in New York on the first day after the statute of limitations on older abuse cases was lifted earlier this month.
Pennsylvania’s state legislature is still in the process of debating whether and how to change its statute of limitations.
But Quinn said the statute of limitations doesn’t apply in the Scranton case, because his clients could not have known about the diocese’s efforts to conceal abuse until the grand jury report last year exposed how the abuse was covered up.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday says Pulicare was assigned to at least nine different parishes in the diocese as part of the ongoing cover-up.
The suit also says former Scranton bishop James Timlin allowed one of the plaintiffs to sleep in Pulicare’s bed in the cathedral.
Bambera had restricted Timlin, who was implicated in the grand jury report for abuse cover-up, from representing the diocese in public following the report’s release last year.
“Up until the release of the grand-jury report last August, our clients thought they had only been victimized by Father Pulicare,” Quinn said. “They were unaware of the ... active role the diocese and its leaders played in covering up cases of clergy abuse and endangering them and others.”
The Pennsylvania state attorney general did not list Pulicare among the hundreds of accused priests, the WNEP report said.
The Diocese of Scranton decided earlier this year that alleged victims of Pulicare are eligible to receive money from the diocese’s settlement fund.
“The victim’s fund was a slap in the face,” said alleged victim John Patchcoski. “To me, I could have to just say it was almost like being molested all over again.”
“A crime was committed and I feel as though it should be handled by the court, not the Church,” alleged victim Jim Pliska said.
Quinn said the compensation program “is not the answer for our clients because it doesn’t hold the diocese and its leaders truly accountable.”
“Our clients look forward to the full discovery that the civil justice system affords, but the process created by the diocese through the fund does not,” Quinn said. “And having their fate and the fate of the diocese and its leaders should be decided by a jury of their peers.”