Correspondence Traces Priest's Removal from Duties

By Ed Palattella
Erie Times-News
June 29, 2003

The removal of the Rev. Thomas E. Smith from the ministry culminated nine years of work by a 43-year-old Erie man.

The man said Smith, now 62, sexually abused him more than 30 years ago, when the man was about 10 years old. From 1993 through 2002, the man and his family sought to have Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman remove Smith from the priesthood entirely.

What follows is the history of the correspondence between the man and his family and the bishop.

* The man first wrote to Trautman on Sept. 17, 1993. Trautman had been bishop of the Erie diocese for three years. The man's letter named Thomas E. Smith as the priest who abused him decades ago.

The man's letter said: "I believe it was around 24 years ago that a situation arose that I was not quite old enough to deal with. Father Smith, who probably got closer to my family than anyone during this period of time, began to molest me in ways that I would rather not remember. I knew it was bad, but I guess I was too afraid and just did not know how to tell anyone."

The man's letter said he was writing because he was concerned about whether Smith was still around young men. The man did not ask for money.

"This is something I should have done long ago, and feel good about finally doing something about it," the man wrote. "I am requesting that you inform me of what has been done or what is being done about this situation."

* The man's mother also wrote to Trautman. The letters led to a meeting with Trautman. The man recalled Trautman saying of Smith: "Basically he said he knew about it and he was treated and they were going to take care of it."

* The man's parents wrote to Trautman in 1998, again expressing the family's concerns about Smith. The mother said a television program about pedophilia prompted her to write. Trautman wrote back on Aug. 10, 1998.

"No words of mine can lessen your sorrow," Trautman wrote. "I can only redouble my efforts to enforce the restrictions which I have already placed upon him. He has been sent to several institutions for therapy and continues in therapy in weekly meetings.

"I was not the bishop of this diocese at the time he served in your parish. Nevertheless, I will do all that is within my powers to bring healing to this situation. I pray that with God's grace one day you will be able to leave the past in the past. God is our judge. Those who have wronged others must make amends now on earth while there is still time. Let us look to the Lord himself who forgave those who wronged him. I know this is not easy."

* In December 2001, the man and his family became alarmed. They saw a photograph published in the Community News section in a Sunday edition of the Erie Times-News. The photo showed Smith collecting food for a church food bank. Two high school students were in the photo, helping Smith.

"I'm sorry," the mother wrote. "Our family does not feel that Tom Smith should be in any close association with young children (mainly boys). We feel now and have always felt that Tom Smith should have been punished and excommunicated. Every day I read where men have sexually assaulted young children and they are convicted and sentenced to pay for their deeds. Because Tom Smith is a priest, should he be excluded?"

* Trautman wrote back on Jan. 31, 2002. He attached a written explanation from Smith about the food bank photo.

Smith, who was working at the food bank for St. Patrick Catholic Church, said he drove a pickup truck to a local Catholic high school to pick up food that students had collected. He said two or three students helped him load the food, and a nun asked if she "could take a photo to show how their students help the poor."

"I brought the food to St. Patrick's food bank," Smith wrote. "The whole time (at the high school) was less than 15 minutes."

In his letter to the man's parents, Trautman called Smith's explanation "truthful." Trautman also wrote: "Father Tom Smith remains with a severely restricted ministry. He celebrates Mass for women religious and has no direct contact with youth. I do not know of any lapse or violation of his restricted ministry. I believe appropriate action has been taken in the fact that there is no parish assignment and there is a definite curtailing of his ministry, confining him to a Mass with women religious, a nursing home and assistance with the food bank.

"He will never serve a parish as an associate priest, senior associate or pastor. I can only pray for reconciliation and healing of all parties involved."

* The 43-year-old Erie man wrote to Trautman on March 1, 2002. The clergy sex abuse scandal was erupting in Boston. The man wrote: "I did feel, and still do, that Tom Smith should not be around children and should have been stripped of his priesthood. So, I do not feel the church really dealt with this in the correct fashion. I don't let that bother me and I really can't say much, because I never really did anything about it myself.

"I know it does bother much of my family, especially with all the hoopla going on now with these types of issues occurring around the country. I therefore ask the church be more careful in its public comments about this diocese not having anything like that. I know, first hand, that this is not true!

"I don't want to say that I feel the church owes me something, but I kind of do," the man wrote.

He did not ask for money.

He asked that Trautman help clear up a dispute that had jeopardized his ability to send his children to a Catholic school.

* The diocese soon entered into negotiations with the man to reach a financial settlement. Around the same time, on March 8, 2002, Trautman amended the diocesan policy on priests accused of sexual abuse of children.

The change allowed for the removal of those priests from all ministry. Trautman wrote the Erie man's parents on March 18 regarding Smith.

"I can now update you regarding a change in his status,' Trautman wrote.

"Father Smith no longer has the faculties of the Diocese of Erie to function as a priest here or anywhere. That means he will never say a public Mass or serve as a priest in any capacity in the Diocese of Erie or anywhere else. I do ask for your prayers for healing."

* The man and the diocese reached a financial settlement at the end of May 2002, according to the correspondence. The man in an interview declined to comment on the exact amount, but said it was less than $100,000.

* Trautman last sent a message for the man and his family on Feb. 26. "I write in reference to Thomas Smith," Trautman wrote. "(The man and his family) were very emphatic in having Thomas Smith reside outside a clerical setting and, if possible, outside the city of Erie. I am happy to inform you that at this point he has obtained a secular position and will be residing outside of Erie County and no longer in any clerical setting."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.