Abuse Lawsuit against Priests Advances

By Rebekah Scott
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania)
February 7, 2004

A Westmoreland County judge ruled this week that three Benedictine priests from the Latrobe order must face a civil trial on allegations they sexually abused a 16-year-old altar boy, then colluded with authorities at the archabbey and the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown to cover their crimes for more than 20 years.

At the same time, the Benedictine Society of Latrobe is suing Zurich and Maryland insurance companies for refusing to cover the priests' legal defense and possible settlements that could total millions.

In the abuse case, Judge Gary Caruso on Monday overruled the churchmen's preliminary objections to charges leveled by Mary Bonson, mother of the alleged victim, who filed suit seeking damages for herself.

The abuse allegedly took place in 1980 and 1981, but the victim did not tell his mother about the events until July 2002. He was subsequently hospitalized for treatment of depression and alcoholism, the suit maintains.

Bonson said her son's disclosure has caused her "mental anguish, untold humiliation and trauma, nightmares, sleeplessness, loss of faith, elevated cholesterol levels, and increased risk of heart attack."

In pretrial objections, defense attorneys said too much time elapsed between the alleged events and the lawsuit. They also argued that the boy's mother could not have witnessed the crimes and that the supposed victim, not his mother, should be the one filing suit. But Caruso said the statute of limitations on this case began in 2002, when the mother learned of the abuse and her trauma began.

In May, she sued St. Vincent Archabbey, the bishops and Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, and priests Alvin Downey, Andrew Campbell and Athanasius Cherry, seeking undisclosed damages. The priests were immediately placed on administrative leave.

David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, hailed the judge's ruling for its potential for "broad statewide implications."

"We believe this ruling is significant [as] it may open the courthouse doors to dozens of other relatives of men and women who were severely victimized as children by trusted adults," he said in a statement yesterday. "Every one of the diocese's objections were overruled by the judge. We're gratified this woman will have her day in court."

The lawsuit contends that the abuse began in 1980, when Downey was assigned temporarily to St. John the Evangelist Church in Bellefonte, Centre County. The 16-year-old boy was an altar server there, part of a devout family. Downey several times supposedly gave the youth alcohol and marijuana during visits to the rectory, and fondled and performed sex acts with the boy.

Downey invited the youth to visit St. Vincent seminary in 1981 with a promise to introduce him to Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw. During the stay, Downey allegedly brought the boy to his private monastery quarters, where he, Campbell and Cherry shared sloe gin, beer and stimulants and engaged in sex acts with the boy.

The archabbey is in Latrobe, which is why the suit was filed in Greensburg. It was the seventh sex abuse case filed against the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, Bishop Joseph Adamec and his predecessor, Bishop James Hogan, the men in charge of the Bellefonte church.

The plaintiff contends that Downey and church leaders made her "an unwitting accomplice to her child's exploitation" by hiding from her and other parents the priest's "dangerous predelictions" and cynically maintaining a cordial Christmas-card relationship with her for years after the abuse ended.

All three Benedictines were still active in the priesthood when the suit was filed last spring, and were immediately placed on leave. Cherry was replaced as pastor at St. Vincent Parish. Campbell was an English professor at St. Vincent College. Downey was serving as a psychiatric nurse.

St. Vincent spokesman Don Orlando said the institution will not comment on the suit, but that all three priests are "removed from ministry and have no contact with students."

Helen Kotler, Bonson's lawyer, said Caruso's ruling allows the case to proceed to trial, but a long process of filings and discovery lies ahead.

In their lawsuit, the Benedictines accused their liability insurers of "bad faith" and are asking the court to force the company to pay punitive damages as well as all costs of the abuse case. Attorneys representing the insurance companies did not return calls for comment.


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