Harrisburg Diocese fights for dismissal of lawsuit by man who says Catholic priests raped him in the 1960s
By Matt Miller
September 25, 2019
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg is pressing hard for the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by a man who claims two priests repeatedly raped him when he was an altar boy more than 50 years ago.
The attorneys for that man, who now lives in Missouri, are fighting just as hard to keep the case on track for a trial in Dauphin County Court.
The legal battle is just the latest to erupt since a state grand jury last year released a scathing report on child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania.
That report has prompted apologies by bishops and church leaders all the way up to Pope Francis. It also led Bishop Ronald Gainer of the Harrisburg Diocese to release the names of 71 people in the diocese, including priests, who were accused of sexual improprieties.
The suit by the Missouri man, whose name is being withheld by PennLive because he claims to be the victim of sex crimes, also was triggered by the grand jury report. Before its release, he didn’t realize there was a decades-long “conspiracy” among diocese leaders to shield predator priests, the man contends in his suit.
The man, now 67, claims he was sexually assaulted and repeatedly sodomized by two now-dead priests, Father Raymond Daugherty and Father Walter Sempko, at Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in the early 1960s.
He seeks unspecified financial damages from the diocese on allegations of fraud and conspiracy. He claims bishops concealed reports of sexual abuse and protected priests who committed such acts, allowing them to keep preying on unwitting victims.
In preliminary objections, the diocese is seeking dismissal of the suit on an array of grounds. For starters, it claims the 52-year delay in filing suit over the alleged abuse merits termination of the case.
The diocese notes as well that since both of the accused priests are dead, they can’t be questioned about the man’s claims. Also, the diocese contends the suit is too vague, that it contains no allegations that Daugherty and Sempko were named as predator priests by the grand jury and that it does not indicate whether the Missouri man ever reported his supposed molestations to anyone at the diocese.
As a whole, the man’s allegations “are entirely threadbare and utterly nonspecific, rendering the diocese and Bishop Gainer unable to prepare a proper defense or response,” the diocese contends.
The Missouri man’s attorneys are countering by arguing the diocese must have known for years about abuse committed by predator priests.
“Bishop Gainer clearly had sufficient information to identify 71 child predators within the Harrisburg Diocese over a period of decades,” they noted. “In essence, (Gainer) has publicly admitted that his predecessors were complicit in the cover-up.”
The Missouri man’s lawyers also cited a Superior Court ruling in the so-called Rice case as grounds for allowing the suit to move forward. That decision was issued in June when the Superior Court reinstated a lawsuit by a woman who claims she was molested by a pedophile priest in the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in the 1970 and 80s.
The Rice ruling, which is being challenged before the state Supreme Court, voided a Blair County judge’s dismissal of the woman’s case on statute of limitations grounds. The Superior Court decision effectively expands the time frame for victims to sue the church on priest abuse claims, the Missouri man’s lawyers contend.
They argue that the suit against the Harrisburg Diocese defendants should go to trial so church officials can try to convince a jury “that they did not commit fraud in failing to disclose for decades the molestation and rape of innocent children until after the grand jury report.”
The Harrisburg Diocese has established a fund to compensate victims of predator priests. In mid-August it reported that, $12.1 million in payouts had been made to 106 victims. The average payment was about $114,000.
Requests for compensation had to be filed with the diocese by May 2019. The Missouri man’s suit was filed in the county court in late July.