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3 Plaintiffs Claim Priest Abused Them

Sep 21, 2002 | Canton Repository

Steven Catalano was up late at night, reading The New York Times on the Internet.

He ran across a story about a priest sex abuse case.

“I swear, my heart stopped,” said Catalano, 33, formerly of Louisville. “It was almost identical to what happened to me.”

He went to check on his little boy, 2.

“I’m looking down at my son,” he said, “and I’m thinking, ‘my God, this could still be happening.’ ”

He awakened his wife.

It was 2:30 a.m. and he told her, for the first time, a secret he’d been hiding for years. He told her that from 1980 to 1983, the Rev. John E. Hammer molested him at St. Louis Catholic Church.

“She said, ‘We’ve got to do something,’ ” Catalano said.

That was April.

On Thursday, Catalano, who now lives in Columbus, was joined by two other men and their St. Paul, Minn., attorney, Jeffrey Anderson, on the steps of a Youngstown courthouse. They are suing the Youngstown and Saginaw, Mich., Catholic dioceses and Hammer, a Massillon native, saying they were sexually abused by the priest in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The lawsuit was probably not much of a surprise. Hammer himself admitted April 27 to a congregation at St. Mary Church in Alma, Mich., that he’d had “inappropriate sexual behavior” at St. Louis Catholic Church in Louisville with altar boys.

It was his resignation letter. He also was, from all accounts, talking about something that ended nearly two decades ago.

The lawsuit says otherwise. Shortly after Catalano’s epiphany, he traveled to Alma to speak before about 250 church members.

Before he told his story, a couple approached him. They told Catalano their son, now 12, had been abused by Hammer in April 2001.

“This is the exact thing I was hoping I wouldn’t hear,” Catalano said, “but in the back of my mind, I knew I would.”

That boy is known as John Doe 63 in the lawsuit.

Anderson, who since 1983 has filed more than 500 abuse cases against priests and their dioceses, said, “Each of these men suffered in shame and silence ... thinking it was their fault.

“Each of these victims didn’t want this to happen to anyone else,” Anderson said. “We really want to reach out to the other victims ... to let them know they’re not alone.”

Though the suit doesn’t specify the exact damages sought from the dioceses, Anderson said, “If they refuse to take responsibility ... the money they’ll have to end up paying will be substantially more.”

The lawsuit alleges Hammer sexually abused the Stark County boys during sleepovers at the church, and one boy at Hammer’s parents’ house. It also states Hammer abused one boy while watching a movie at a theater. Church leaders failed to properly supervise Hammer and conspired to conceal the alleged abuse, the lawsuit claims.

“Sexual” is omitted from the lawsuit when referring to John Doe 63.

“There was no direct sexual contact,” Anderson said. “Hammer would play with him, roughhouse with him. We describe it as battery with a sexual purpose.” Hammer “was doing weird things in a weird way,” Anderson said.

Eric Sanderbeck, 34, of Louisville said he was shocked when he first heard about Catalano. Sanderbeck is known as John Doe 61 in the lawsuit because he initially wanted to remain anonymous. Then, during the announcement Thursday in Youngstown, he went public. Another man, David Bernard of Paris Township, also came forward. He is John Doe 62.

“You feel awful for the other guys because you understand what they’ve been through,” said Sanderbeck, who was friends with Catalano. He’s been an even closer friend of Bernard. In all their time together, he never talked about the alleged abuse with Bernard, Sanderbeck said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

The victims all suffered “severe emotional distress, loss of self-esteem, humiliation and psychological injuries,” the lawsuit states.

Sanderbeck said he hopes any others who may have been abused will seek help.

“As a child, you don’t really understand what it does to you,” he said. “If you don’t address it, it’s not going to get any better.”

Sanderbeck said he wants to see the statute of limitations changed for such crimes, and added, “We want this Hammer in jail like any other sexual predator.”

For Sanderbeck’s parents, the revelation about the alleged abuse was overwhelming, Sanderbeck said. “I think it took them a good month or two to accept it.” His parents have since left the Catholic faith, he added.

Hammer spent five years in rehabilitation in Maryland. He returned to Ohio to live with his parents before being hired in Michigan.

In his statement in April to the Alma, Mich., congregation, Hammer spoke of his “inappropriate sexual behavior” in Ohio and said, “I honestly did not know I had a problem, that what I was doing was wrong, and that it was harmful to other people.”

In Youngstown, diocesan Chancellor Nancy Yuhasz said the diocese has received the suit, adding, “Actually, the media received it before we did.” She said the diocese will not comment on pending litigation, but added, “Any allegations that we were aware of have been turned over to the appropriate county prosecutors.”

A call to the Saginaw diocese seeking comment was not returned. Attempts to reach Hammer have been unsuccessful.

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