‘the Church We So Believed in Abandoned Us,’ Mom of Assault Victim Says at Sentencing of Allentown Diocese Priest
By Laurie Mason Schroeder and Daniel Patrick Sheehan
February 24, 2020
|Catholic priest Kevin Lonergan was sentenced Monday for groping a 17-year-old parishioner and sending her lewd photos. (JANE THERESE / SPECIAL TO THE MORNING CALL)|
After the father of a 17-year-old Allentown Central Catholic High School student who was groped by an Allentown Diocese priest lamented to Lehigh County Judge Maria L. Dantos that he was unable to do more to protect his daughter, the judge posed a question:
“Would it surprise you to learn that he was transferred here in 2016 after a similar incident?" she asked the father.
It was a stunning moment in an emotional hearing that ended with the Rev. Kevin Lonergan, 31, being sentenced to one to two years in state prison, the maximum allowed by law.
Lonergan, of Pottsville, will also be a registered sex offender under Megan’s Law for 15 years.
While the prior allegation did not lead to Lonergan’s arrest and was previously revealed in a 2018 news release and letter to parishioners, the judge still had strong words for the Catholic Church, noting that the practice of moving troublesome priests from one church to another has been condemned since the early 1980s.
“We are still transferring priests that molest children?” she asked, her voice raised. “If he had been sanctioned and fired, this victim would not be a victim."
The diocese said in a statement that it wasn’t accurate to say it transferred a priest who committed an offense.
“Father Lonergan received a new assignment in 2016 only after Northampton County Children and Youth determined that the accusation was unfounded,” the diocese statement said.
In the more recent allegation, Lonergan pleaded guilty in November to indecent assault. He was charged in August 2018, just days after a statewide grand jury report that outlined widespread clergy abuse.
Authorities said Lonergan and the teen met at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Allentown, where the girl and her family worshipped. He admitted rubbing his body against her in a sexual manner in a church hallway and sending her 20 sexually explicit photos and one video.
The girl confided in a school official, who alerted the diocese and law enforcement.
In court Monday, the girl and her parents described a life that revolved around their faith, which was upended by Lonergan’s crime.
“Kevin Lonergan took our most precious gift from God, our daughter, and harmed her in the most sacred, safe place,” her mother said, adding that the family feels ostracized since coming forward.
“The church we so believed in abandoned us," she said.
Her father told the judge that his deep trust of clergy has been shaken by the crime.
“If you can’t trust the shepherds of the young and faithful, who can you trust?” he asked.
The girl, who was identified in court as Jane Doe and has since graduated from Central Catholic, told the judge that she still struggles with memories of Lonergan’s actions. Chief Deputy District Attorney Matthew Falk called the girl “incredibly strong, incredibly brave.”
Falk called Lonergan’s actions “predatory.”
Details about the prior incident were contained in a presentence report, which was prepared for the judge but is not a public record. In the report, which Dantos referenced in court, the incident was described as “hands-on molestation" of a 15-year-old girl.
The judge noted that Lonergan told investigators who compiled the presentence report that the 15-year-old had a “crush” on him.
Falk said Lonergan was not prosecuted in that case because the girl and her family refused to cooperate with law enforcement, and the investigation stalled.
Though the Central Catholic High School student’s parents told the judge that they were unaware of the prior incident beside “hearing rumors,” diocese spokesman Matthew Kerr said the information is not new.
In May 2016, when Lonergan was assistant pastor at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church in Palmer Township, he was removed from his post and forbidden from ministry while Northampton County Children and Youth investigated what was determined to be an unfounded “concern,” Kerr said.
When the case was closed, Lonergan was restored to ministry and then-Bishop John O. Barres appointed him assistant pastor at the Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena in Allentown. The details of the allegation were never revealed.
In a 2018 letter to parishioners following Lonergan’s arrest, the diocese said it had not revealed the 2016 allegation because “it was ruled unfounded by the proper authorities.”
Bishop Alfred Schlert chose to reveal the information “in the spirit of transparency,” the letter added.
After Lonergan was sentenced Monday, the diocese said he would not return to ministry:
“The Diocese offers its heartfelt prayers to the victim, to her family, and to everyone who was hurt as the result of Father Lonergan’s actions.
"From the beginning of this case, the diocese followed its protocols to the letter, and will continue to do so. Bishop Alfred Schlert removed Father Lonergan from ministry and immediately notified law enforcement on the day the allegations were made.
"The Diocese considers itself a partner with law enforcement in preventing abuse and keeping children safe, and as such, it thanks District Attorney [Jim] Martin and all law enforcement officials who have been involved.
" ... Now that the matter has reached a final civil judgment, the Diocese will submit the case to the Vatican,” the diocese said in a statement.
Lonergan’s attorney, Eric Prock, asked that Lonergan receive a sentence of probation or house arrest, which state sentencing guidelines would have allowed. He told the judge that Lonergan is contrite.
Lonergan read a lengthy apology in court, saying he regretted bringing a scandal on the church. He asked the judge to show him mercy.
“I am guilty of violating your trust and stealing your dignity as a person,” he told the victim. “My actions were disgusting and selfish.”
Lonergan had a large crowd of supporters in the courtroom. Dantos said parishioners who turned against the girl and her family for coming forward should be ashamed.
“There is no churchgoing person who should be supporting your actions. Period," she told Lonergan.
Morning Call reporter Laurie Mason Schroeder can be reached at 610-820-6506 or email@example.com