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In Unprecedented Numbers, U.S. Bishops Named in Lawsuits and Why It Matters

(Warning. This report includes graphic language that may trigger bad reactions in those who have been sexually abused.)

Since March 2019, 15 bishops (see below) have been named in lawsuits either as perpetrators of sexual abuse or for covering up the sexual assaults of others. This is important because while “priests were raping boys and girls, the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades, monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals were protected; many were promoted,” stated a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report.

Thousands of American priests have been sued but relatively few U.S. bishops have been identified by name in court proceedings. “For true bishop accountability to occur, two things must happen: 1) there must be a full account of the bishops’ responsibility for the sexual abuse crisis and 2) bishops who have caused the abuse of children and vulnerable adults must be held accountable,” leaders of the online database, BishopAccountability.org, concluded.

This is happening under civil law and not by the Church. “Never before have so many states acted in near-unison to lift the restrictions that once shut people out if they didn’t bring claims of childhood sex abuse by a certain age, often their early 20s,” the Associated Press reported.

Six bishops were named in lawsuits filed after New York enacted a law on Aug. 14, 2019, that extends the statute of limitations “to allow claims stretching back decades.” Seven other states  and Washington D.C. now have similar “lookback windows” that begin in 2020, including populous states like California and New Jersey. Another seven states have raised the age limit for claimants filing lawsuits.

This has resulted in “potentially more than 5,000 new cases and payouts topping $4 billion” according to the Associated Press. That’s in addition to the “$4 billion already paid out since the clergy sex abuse first came to light in the 1980s.”

“The survivors coming forward now have been holding on to this horrific experience all of their lives,” said 71-year-old Nancy Holling-Lonnecker. “They bottled up those emotions all of these years because there was no place to take it.” Holling-Lonnecker’s claim “dates back to the 1950s, when she says a priest repeatedly raped her in a confession booth beginning when she was 7 years old.”

Also, as of as of October 2019, 22 state attorneys general are now investigating sexual abuse in the Catholic Church

So the lawsuits filed this past year appear to be just a beginning.

Much of these actions by state governments can be attributed to the Pennsylvania grand jury report disclosing “pervasive child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, listing more than 300 accused clergy and over a 1,000 confirmed child victims.” Heinous occurrences included:

Pittsburgh priests operated an “extensive child porn ring.” This group of priests “raped children, shared intelligence on potential victims and manufactured child pornography in parishes and rectories.” They “used whips, violence, and sadism in raping their victims.”

One priest, “grooming his middle school students for oral sex, taught them how Mary had to ‘bite off the cord’ and ‘lick’ Jesus clean when he was born. It took 15 years and numerous other reports for this priest to be removed from service.”

How the Church responds: Pope Francis makes headlines not “true accountability.”

The most recent notorious American prelate is former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. On June 20, 2018, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced that the Archdiocesan Review Board found the allegation of sex abuse of a minor by McCarrick was “credible and substantiated.” After Dolan’s announcement, two other accusations of sexual abuse of minors by McCarrick were revealed.

As the above was widely reported, it was agreed among Church insiders that “everyone knew” about McCarrick’s sexual predation of young priests and seminarians.

Pope Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals in July 2018 and assigned him to “a life of prayer and penance”  in a Kansas friary – an unenforceable seclusion. McCarrick has since moved to an “undisclosed” location of his own choosing.

In February 2019, a week before his much-publicized Vatican “summit” on child sex abuse, Pope Francis made headlines by laicizing (defrocking) McCarrick.

Laicizing an 89-year-old, “financially independent” prelate may be “accountability” of sorts, but it is hardly a deterrent to other bishops.

A Vatican investigation into “how McCarrick could have ascended in Church ranks when many are said to have been aware of his alleged abuses; how he could become an archbishop and cardinal, who knew what and when,” was announced in October 2018 is still waiting for Pope Francis to approve its release.

Another prelate of recent notoriety is Bishop Michael J. Bransfield. Bransfield resigned in September 2018 for alleged sexual and financial misconduct. A secret Church report “detailed how he allegedly groomed and inappropriately touched young men.”

Pope Francis made headlines by “saying former bishop Michael Bransfield can’t live within the diocese, can’t participate in any public celebration of the liturgy and must make amends ‘for some of the harm he caused.’”

Like McCarrick, other than not appearing at official Church ceremonies, the rest is unenforceable. And Bransfield still gets a pay check, health insurance, etc.

In December 2019, “West Virginia’s attorney general and police in Washington, D.C., issued subpoenas to Church officials in Wheeling, West Virginia, and Baltimore, seeking the secret Church report. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said the Church has denied his request for it. He said he was told the report “is with the pope and out of its hands.”

The Diocese of Buffalo is the subject of a RICO lawsuit filed in August 2019 “alleging that the response of the diocese [to the sex abuse of children] was comparable to an organized crime syndicate.”

Pope Francis’ ambassador to the U.S. announced that Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio was asked to lead an inspection of the Buffalo diocese on behalf of the Vatican. That review concluded in October and has not been released.

In November, DiMarzio himself was accused of “repeatedly abusing” an altar boy in the 1970s.

In January, it was announced that Cardinal Dolan, as the metropolitan archbishop of New York State, “will formally conduct an investigation into an allegation against DiMarzio.” The new procedure was part of a May 2019 “landmark decree” headlined as “Pope decrees bishops must be directly accountable for sex abuse or cover-ups.” The pope was said to have acted “in response to growing demands that bishops who perpetrated abuses or allowed them to happen under their watch should be disciplined.”

I love the guy [DiMarzio], he’s a good friend, he’s never had an accusation against him his whole life,” Dolan said of the case. “But in November, somebody made an accusation from way, way, way, way, back – 48 years or so ago – and, as much as Bishop DiMarzio said ‘This is preposterous, this is ridiculous, this is unjust,’ darn it, we have to take it seriously. We promised we would … and I have to as well, and the Holy See does.”

Raise your hand if you think anything will happen to DiMarzio that deters other prelates.

Last July, Tom Johnson, the clergy abuse ombudsman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, submitted a formal request – citing specific case histories – to the Vatican to investigate possible misconduct by former Archbishop John Nienstedt. Nienstedt oversaw the archdiocese from 2008 to 2015, when he resigned following Ramsey County Attorney John Choi’s decision to file civil and criminal charges against the archdiocese for failing to protect children.”

As of March 24, 2020, Johnson’s “still awaiting a response.” Johnson said he doesn’t know why the Vatican isn’t adhering to the much-touted protocols enacted by Pope Francis last May to respond within 30 days. “The foundation of my allegations [has] been known for five-plus years,” said Johnson. “The Vatican has been aware for some time.”

From day one of his reign, Pope Francis could have taken effective action to protect children around the world. If he had asked any non-ecclesial expert, he would have been referred to the dozens of reports by attorneys general, grand juries, commissions, and organizations completed before 2013, all concurring that – at the least – child sex abuse should be reported to the police immediately, bishops who aided and abetted the perpetrators must be held accountable and bishops must turn over their documents to civil authorities. Instead, Pope Francis has left the matter of reporting crimes to civil authorities, bishop accountability and handing over documents largely to the discretion of local bishops.

And Pope Francis has formed yet another panel who will disregard the decades of reports by secular experts. On Feb. 28, 2020, the pope “created a task force to help bishops’ conferences around the world address the clerical sex abuse crisis.”

As one law firm that represents sexual assault survivors commented:

“Let’s imagine you wanted to set up a panel on the Catholic abuse and cover up crisis. BUT you want to make sure it’s totally ineffective …. We’d appoint high-ranking clerics. More men who’ve risen to the top in an institution in which clergy sex crimes and cover ups have been rampant for centuries can’t help …. We’d throw in a former papal spokesman. Yet another guy in the room who has spent years ‘spinning’ this crisis can’t help ….”

Pope Francis has “created yet another abuse panel…. And its composition alone almost guarantees its ineffectiveness.”

In an open letter to Pope Francis dated March 2, 2020, Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA), a worldwide leadership network of survivors of clergy abuse and human rights activists ask the pope:

“How can you seriously resolve this global crisis without embracing the experience and wisdom from survivors around the world who are actively working to end abuse in the Church? …..

We are particularly offended by a report on February 28, 2020, where Archbishop Charles Scicluna [a member of the pope’s new task force] insisted that with new papal initiatives ‘silence and cover-ups’ in the Church are now ‘a thing of the past.’”

The group then cites Pope Francis’ extraordinary and continuing stonewalling of justice for the survivors of the horrendous sexual brutality of deaf children by Fr. Nicola Corradi in both Italy and Argentina.

What effect does this have on Catholics?

As reported by the Washington Post, “37 percent of Catholics told Gallup that ‘recent news about sexual abuse of young people by priests’ has them personally questioning whether to remain Catholic.” This was an increase of “15 points since the last major crisis in the early 2000s,” according to a poll released in March 2019.  However, “experts on the polling of Catholics say considering leaving isn’t the same as leaving” noted the Washington Post.

While Pope Francis is ranked lower than Donald Trump as the world’s most admired man in 2019 according to YouGov’s annual study of which public figures the people of our planet look up to, “six-in-ten U.S. adults say they have a ‘very’ or ‘mostly’ favorable view of Pope Francis” according to an April 3 report by the Pew Research Center.

“U.S. Catholics are more likely than the general public to have a positive assessment of Pope Francis. About three-quarters of Catholics (77%) now view the pope favorably …. Roughly nine-in-ten (87%) Catholic Democrats and Democratic leaners view Pope Francis favorably compared with 71% among Catholic Republicans and Republican leaners.”

So the pressure is off the pope, at least for now, to make any reform that will decrease the number of children who are now, or in the future will be, sexually tortured by members of the Catholic Church or that these crimes are not, or will not continue to be, covered up by Catholic officials.

“It was only through civil litigation that the public has learned about the extent of sexual abuse,” Timothy J. Conlon, an attorney for a clerical sex abuse survivor, said on Feb. 29. “Having lost clergy abuse victim clients to suicide, we, on behalf of victims of such abuse, must insist that the Church face its responsibilities for its role in the devastation they caused,” Conlon said. “This is about accountability, sending a message, and taking people who have blood on their hands and bringing them to justice.”

List of U.S. bishops named in lawsuits since March 2079.

In March 2019, Bishop Michael J. Bransfield was sued by a former altar boy. The lawsuit alleged that Bransfield “sexually assaulted him in 2014 and he was harassed for years prior.” The lawsuit was settled by Wheeling-Charleston Diocese in August.  The terms are confidential.

New York’s Child Victims Act (CVA) changing the state’s strict statute of limitations on sexual crimes against children, went into effect on Aug. 14, 2019.  The law “opened up a one-year, one-time-only period to allow all victims to seek civil action, regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred. Republicans controlled the state Senate for the past decade and blocked the measure, even as it repeatedly passed the Democratic-led Assembly. But with Democrats winning control of the Senate at the polls last November, the whole dynamic changed.”

As a result:

8/14/19 Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard, who retired in 2014 after nearly four decades as head of the Albany diocese, was accused in a lawsuit of “using his position as a priest to groom and to sexually abuse” the then-teen between 1994 and 1998. In a sign of the times, when Hubbard was accused in the early 2000s of a sexual relationship with a young man before he committed suicide in 1978, and soliciting sex from a teenage sex worker in the 1970s, “Albany’s Roman Catholic community rallied around him, with parish members wearing purple ribbons to show their support.”

A second lawsuit filed in September “accused Hubbard and two other Capital Region priests of repeatedly assaulting a teenage girl in the late 1970s. A third filed earlier in October “claimed that Hubbard and a second priest abused a teenage boy at a Troy church in the 1970s.” Also in October, “the fourth civil action to accuse Hubbard of child sex abuse was filed” accusing Hubbard and another priest of sexually abused an altar boy in the late 1980s.

8/15/19 Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone was accused in a lawsuit “of molesting and performing sex acts on a young boy while serving as a priest at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in Amityville, N.Y. The suit alleges the abuse began in 1978, when the child was 8 years old, and that Guglielmone told the boy that it was ‘God’s will.’” The Vatican is reportedly investigating.

8/23/19 Bishop Edward Kmiec, the now retired bishop of Buffalo, “has been named in a lawsuit against the Diocese of Buffalo by 23 plaintiffs. The suit describes an environment of ‘harassing, threatening, extorting, and misleading victims of sexual abuse committed by priests’ and of ‘misleading priests’ victims and the media to prevent reporting or disclosure of sexual misconduct.’ The lawsuit claims the diocese engaged in a ‘racketeering enterprise’ and is in violation of the Racketeers Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which is meant to target criminal organizations.”

Bishop Richard Malone is also named in the suit. He presented his resignation after Pope Francis’ ambassador in Washington, D.C., announced that Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn had been asked to lead an “inspection of the Buffalo diocese on behalf of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops. That review concluded at the end of October.” Malone said he had been made aware of the “general conclusions” of the report and the conclusions had factored into his discernment to resign, but that he had done so “freely and voluntarily.” The report has not been released to the public.

10/23/19 The late Bishop John McCann, former head of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, was sued by two woman and a man accusing him and other priests of sexually assaulting them when they were young children.  The allegations date back to 1961 and involve persons who are all deceased.

1/2/20 Bishop Donald W. Trautman paid “a paltry sum of money … which amounts to hush money,” to the alleged survivor of sexual abuse by the late Fr. Gerard Smyczynski in the 1980s, said attorney Paul Barr. Trautman, then auxiliary bishop of the Buffalo Diocese, “offered to speed along the marriage annulment of the child’s parents in exchange for them staying quiet about the abuse, the lawsuit alleges.” “The average time of an annulment, it’s about 18 months [to] as much as two years, and there’s no guarantee,” said James Faluszczak, a former priest under Trautman who now advocates for survivors. “I have never seen even the easiest annulments handled this quickly. It’s just bizarre.”

In other parts of the country:

7/22/19 The late Bishop Anthony O’Connell, was alleged to have sexually abused an altar boy “at least twice” in the 1990s in a lawsuit filed against the Knoxville diocese. He had resigned as bishop of Palm Beach, Florida, “after admitting inappropriate conduct with minors in Missouri decades earlier and before he was in Knoxville.” 

In December, the Diocese of Knoxville reached an out-of-court settlement with the man. The terms and amount of the financial settlement were not disclosed. “The diocese and Church officials also admit no wrongdoing in the settlement.”

8/28/19 Former Bishop James Timlin, and current Bishop Joseph Bambera were named in a lawsuit filed against the Diocese of Scranton by four men who claim to have been sexually abused by Fr. Michael Pulicare. “Alleged victim John Patchcoski said he was 10 or 11 in the early 1970s when he claims he was sexually assaulted by Fr. Pulicare at the priest’s family cabin near a lake north of Scranton. ‘I can still see my face. I can see the tears falling out of my eyes. I can see everything that happened that night. And it will never, ever, ever, ever go away,’ said Patchcoski.” Pulicare died in 1999.

“Our clients look forward to the full discovery that the civil justice system affords …. And having their fate and the fate of the diocese and its leaders should be decided by a jury of their peers,” said Kevin Quinn, an attorney for those filing the lawsuit. “A crime was committed and I feel as though it should be handled by the court, not the Church,” said alleged victim Jim Pliska.

10/10/19 Bishop Edward C. Malesic and his immediate predecessor, Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt, were sued along with the Diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, for “putting a woman at risk by concealing the danger posed by Fr. George R. Pierce,” who died in 2009. The suit accuses Pierce of “sexual assaults and rape in the Church’s rectory, sacristy, confessional and balcony area …. There were between 40 and 50 sexual assaults from 1973 or 1974 to 1978 beginning when she was 10 or 11 years old and lasting until she turned 15, according to the suit.”

The lawsuit alleges Pierce was known to the Greensburg Diocese and the Bishop as a child rapist having been moved from one parish to another “after numerous outraged parishioners complained about sexual crimes against another child.”

“As horrific as his deeds were, those that allowed him to continue including the Bishop of this Diocese, in my opinion, were more heinous, more evil,” attorney Richard Serbin said. Serbin says his client has been offered a little more than $88,000 in compensation by the Greensburg Diocese. “That’s what she gets for four years of being sexually molested,” he said. “She is not interested in that. She wants to expose what has happened.”

10/31/19 Bishop Daniel Conlon and the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, were named in a lawsuit “charging them with knowing Fr. Richard Jacklin had sexually abused people” but “failed to inform governmental officials or law enforcement of Jacklin’s past or to make sure Jacklin was properly supervised while working with disabled and defenseless individuals.” The lawsuit also claims the diocese and bishop knew or should have been aware of Jacklin’s propensity to sexually abuse those he was administering.

“According to the lawsuit, Jacklin was seen performing a sex act on a then 39-year-old resident of Shapiro Developmental Center. The victim has an IQ of 47 and has been a resident at Shapiro since 2010. The victim also suffers from partial paralysis …. During Jacklin’s bond hearing on Nov. 2, 2017, Kankakee County State’s Attorney Jim Rowe said Jacklin told investigators this was not the first time he had sexual encounters with the victim …. Jacklin provided written and verbal confessions to investigators, Rowe said during the hearing.”

2/29/20 Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, retired Bishop Louis Gelineau, the Diocese of Providence and St. Joseph Catholic Church are being sued by Robert Houllahan. The lawsuit alleges that “the diocese had an ‘organized protection system’ that used money and influence to pressure victims, families, and witnesses from seeking criminal investigations of abusive priests.”

“Houllahan, who says he was molested by the late Rev. Normand J. Demers, accuses the diocese of thwarting an investigation into the priest’s abuse of orphaned boys in Haiti more than 30 years ago. Demers brought back young boys to stay with him in the rectory at St. Joseph Church as part of his ‘missionary’ work. In the suit, Houllahan, 51, of Providence, alleges that he saw those boys while he was at the St. Joseph rectory, where, he says, he was molested by Demers and another man.”

The lawsuit “also accuses Demers of trafficking boys as far back as the 1970s, through ‘programs’ meant to help impoverished boys from foreign countries — bringing them to stay with him at the rectory, where he hosted parties with some boys in diapers and had them pose in sexually suggestive photographs.’”

Also see: The World Holds Pope Francis Accountable for Clerical Sex Abuse

Cardinals McCarrick, Wuerl, and Farrell: A Web of Sex Abuse, Bribes, Financial Misconduct and Cover-ups

Pope Plays the Media and Children Pay the Price


2 Responses

  1. For centuries, bishops have been a privileged and protected species like no other. That they have fallen from their thrones is their own doing. They assumed they had a protective shield but the victims of abuse have divested them – the bishop is naked. They failed the sheep more than abusing clergy.
    Indelible is the comment of a parish council president in Louisiana where the first notorious predator made national news, Gilbert Gauthe, who came to their bishop, Gerald Frei, and pleaded to remove this sick man. Frei didn’t. The council president said he held the bishop as worse than Gauthe.
    Important, as BC does, to put the spotlight on current bishops.
    Yet the Vatican continues to delay the report on Mr. McCarrick.

  2. Thank you so much for your astute comments zeroing in on the appalling response of the bishops. Much appreciated.

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