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Diocese Hid Abuse, Four Claim In Suits

Bishops named in filings, which implicate clerics who served Northampton County

Mar 5, 2004 | The Express-Times

Four alleged victims of molestation by priests affiliated with the Diocese of Allentown are seeking more than $2.1 million in damages, according to three civil lawsuits filed.

The suits claim the diocese and its top clergymen concealed ongoing sexual abuse of children by priests, some of whom were assigned to parishes in Northampton County.

Bishops Edward P. Cullen and Thomas J. Welsh are accused of protecting the Rev. Gabriel M. Patil of the Barnabite Fathers, the retired Rev. Frances J. McNelis, and the deceased Rev. William J. Shields.

Lawyers for the alleged victims filed documents days after the National Review Board released the results of a study prepared for the Catholic bishops by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

The study documented nearly 11,000 reports of abuse in the church between 1950 and 2002, and found 4 percent of all clerics who served during that period were accused of abuse.

"These latest suits show that the study was just the tip of the iceberg, that there were many more priests and victims than the church admitted," a Reading-area attorney said.

He and an Altoona attorney have brought a total of eight lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests against the Allentown Diocese, including five filed in January.

In July 2002, the Diocese of Allentown disclosed to prosecutors in its five-county region 23 reports of sexual misconduct by priests in the 41 years since the Catholic body was formed. None of the allegations resulted in criminal charges.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli has said some of the alleged offenders have died, some victims could not be located and the statute of limitations had expired in at least two of the cases.

"While the Diocese of Allentown regrets that any person may have been the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of any cleric, the Diocese does reserve its right to defend itself against the charges," diocese spokesman Matt Kerr said in a news release Thursday in response to the three new lawsuits.

( In their lawsuits, Allentown residents identified only as B.J.B and R.D.K. claim Patil molested them as often as several times a week from 1978 to 1980 at his residence at Bethlehem Catholic High School.

While playing "hide-and-seek," Patil had the boys take turns either "hiding" with him or "being it." He made them sit on his lap and, on various occasions, fondled their genitals, according to documents filed at the Lehigh County Courthouse.

Patil is listed in the diocese's 2002-03 directory as treasurer of the Barnabite Fathers Spiritual Center in Bethlehem Township. Because he is not incarnated as a priest of the Allentown Diocese, Kerr said he did not have access to a list of parishes where Patil worked.

( In a second lawsuit filed in Lehigh County, an Andreas, Pa., resident, claims he was 12 or 13 years old when Shields molested him at St. Ann's in Lansford, Carbon County.

The alleged victim, identified only as John Doe 2, was raised in a devoutly Christian, Roman Catholic family, who regularly attended Mass and financially supported the diocese, court documents say. The plaintiff met Shields while attending the parish school and serving as an altar boy.

After helping with church bingo in 1972, the plaintiff and a friend carried proceeds to the rectory, and Shields invited them to stay and eat some treats. Shields dismissed the plaintiff's friend and asked the plaintiff to remain in the rectory.

Shields sat him down in a TV room, began to give him a massage and eventually fondled the plaintiff's genitals, the lawsuit says. When Shields began to undress him, the boy left the rectory. According to the suit, Shields told him to "let this be our little secret."

After the incident, Shields pursued him, but the boy managed to avoid being alone with the priest, the lawsuit says.

Before his death on Aug. 28, 2000, Shields served nine parishes, including St. Paul in Allentown from 1967 to 1968 and St. Lawrence the Martyr in Catasauqua from 1968 to 1969, Kerr said. He retired in 1995.

In a lawsuit filed in Schuylkill County, Vincent P. Catizone, Jr. of Girardville, Pa., claims he was molested in 1966 and 1968 by McNelis at St. Joseph Church in Girardville.

McNelis, 66, retired in 2002 and is believed to be living at Holy Family Villa for Priests on Prospect Avenue in Bethlehem, Kerr said. McNelis served 11 parishes, including St. Theresa of the Child Jesus in Hellertown from June to September 1970, St. Jane Frances de Chantal then in Wilson Borough from 1972 to 1974 and St. Ann's in Emmaus from 1974 to 1975, Kerr said.

The diocese, Cullen and Welsh each face a total of 43 counts in the suits filed in Lehigh County. Plaintiffs are seeking $50,000 in damages for each count.

In the five lawsuits filed in January, plaintiffs said they were abused as children by the Rev. Richard Giuliani, Monsignor William E. Jones, the Rev. Frank Fromholzer, Monsignor Dennis Rigney and the Rev. Michael Lawrence. The alleged victims are seeking more than $750,000 each.

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