Former Student's Suit Says Nun Seduced Her in Secret '70s Romance

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
October 18, 1997

A woman who says she was seduced by a nun in 1972 while a student at Canevin High School has filed suit against the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and Alberta Veri, a former sister.

The suit does not say whether the student was a minor when the relationship began about six months before she graduated from the diocesan high school in East Carnegie. It says that a clandestine romantic relationship continued until 1975, despite the nun's efforts to break it off.

Attorneys for a Wilkinsburg woman filed the suit in the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. She says that, as a result of the relationship, she suffered severe psychological trauma, confusion about her sexual orientation, post-traumatic stress syndrome, severe sadness and loneliness, numerous types of physical pain, problems with romantic relationships and financial hardship due to inability to work and the cost of therapy.

The former sister could not be reached for comment because her telephone had been disconnected.

Representatives of the diocese and the Sisters of St. Joseph said they were aware of the lawsuit and were looking into the matter.

A spokesman for the diocese disputed the suit's claim that the diocese had asked the plaintiff to remain silent about her allegations.

''I am sure that we don't tell anyone to keep quiet. Our policies are just the opposite. We tell people, if they believe something of this nature has happened, that they have every right to go to the civil authorities,'' said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin.

The suit also says that in 1994 and 1996 representatives of the diocese and the Sisters of St. Joseph told the woman that she could not sue because the statute of limitations had expired. Under Pennsylvania law a minor who has been sexually abused must file suit by his or her 20th birthday. According to the suit, the relationship ended 22 years ago, three years after the plaintiff graduated from high school.

A secretary in the office of the plaintiff's attorney, Edward P. Weiss, said that ''he usually doesn't speak with the media.''

Douglas Yauger, a Pittsburgh attorney who has represented victims in suits against clergy, said he did not see how this case could overcome the statute of limitations. Even if the woman claims she did not remember the abuse until recently, the Pennsylvania's Supreme Court ruled in August that recovered memories are not cause for setting aside the statute of limitations.

''I probably have 10 suits I could have brought, but for that statute,'' Yauger said.

Accusations against nuns for sexual abuse are rare, said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests, which is based in Chicago.

''It is even more rare that the allegation moves on into litigation, but it is becoming more common,'' he said.

Clohessy said he respected the woman's decision to sue when she had apparently continued the relationship into early adulthood. In Colorado, a priest sexually molested a 15-year-old boy, who then continued to have a sexual relationship with him for more than 15 years. The younger man then successfully sued the priest, Clohessy said.

''I think it takes a particular courage to come forward when you acknowledge that you were an adult, chronologically speaking. I really feel for people in that woman's situation,'' he said.

According to the suit, the Wilkinsburg woman was a student at Canevin in 1971 and 1972 when Veri, then known as Sister Bernardine, taught there.

In January 1972, it says, Veri gave her a written description of what it means to be in love and confided that she loved the student.

Veri began bringing the girl to her convent at Holy Rosary in Homewood, where she kissed her on the head, hugged her and talked to her about love. One time the nun read aloud from ''The Velveteen Rabbit,'' a story about a toy that becomes real because a child loves it so much.

The student ''became overwhelmed with feelings of love for Veri and began to cry,'' the suit said.

Veri then told the student that she did not wish to use her as a toy and that she and other nuns at her convent had ''prayed together that Veri's relationship with (the student) would be good.''

Later, the suit continues, Veri began to touch the student in ways that were ''suggestive and inappropriate.'' The student then began to ''experience feelings of love and attraction'' for the sister.

The suit says the student slept in the same bed with the nun on two subsequent overnight visits.

Veri asked the student ''for a life-long commitment,'' the suit said. The nun also told her that she wanted to keep the relationship quiet, which the student agreed to do.

The student graduated that June. Over the next three years the nun ''attempted to break off the relationship and push (the former student) away.'' The relationship ended in August 1975, the suit said.

In the summer of 1994, the Wilkinsburg woman contacted the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Sisters of St. Joseph in an attempt to discover whether her problems were a result of her relationship with Veri. Both the diocese and the order told her that she had no case and asked her to keep quiet about her accusations, the suit said.

After she sought therapy in October 1994, her therapist raised the possibility that the relationship with Veri was a form of abuse.

Veri has not been part of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden since 1980, said Sister Anna Marie Gaglia, moderator of the community's leadership team. She took a leave of absence that year and formally withdrew sometime later.

''We are aware of the fact that the complaint was filed. We have an attorney who is doing an investigation,'' Gaglia said.


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