Three men standing on the steps of the Mahoning County Courthouse on Thursday had a secret that each had carried separately since boyhood.
Together the trio, flanked by lawyers, went public, sharing openly their allegations of abuse by a former Stark County priest.
“I was at home reading the papers about the boys in Boston, and I said — `That is what happened to me’ — I knew I had do something,” said Steven Catalano, 33, who alleges he was sexually molested as a teen-age altar boy in his Louisville parish in the early 1980s by the Rev. John Hammer.
On Thursday, Catalano and two other former altar boys at St. Louis Church in Stark County filed suit against the Diocese of Youngstown, the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich., and the Rev. John “Jack” Hammer seeking an unspecified amount in compensatory and punitive damages.
The suit alleges that Hammer, 49, sexually abused the defendants when he was an assistant pastor at St. Louis Church.
The suit also alleges that the Youngstown Diocese aided and abetted Hammer, contending that church leaders knew about wrongdoing by him as early as 1978. However, the suit alleges, the leaders did not stop him but moved him to different parishes. Eventually he ended up in the Saginaw Diocese, where he continued to abuse minors, the suit alleges.
“This is more than a lawsuit. This is an invitation for social justice. It’s an invitation to the diocese to clean it (sexual abuse) up and to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem,” Minneapolis lawyer Jeffrey Anderson said, holding up a copy of the lawsuit in Youngstown. Anderson is handling the suit with Youngstown lawyer Michael Marando.
The lawsuit paints a picture of Hammer as a man who used his position to gain the confidence of impressionable young boys. After gaining the youngsters’ trust and that of their families, Hammer would take the boys on outings and have them attend sleepovers at the rectory, where, the suit alleges, he would sexually abuse them.
In 1985, Hammer was removed from St. Louis parish and sent for treatment.
Years later, Hammer was assigned by the Saginaw Diocese as a priest at St. Mary’s Church in Alma, Mich. The suit says the Diocese of Saginaw did so despite knowing his sexual history.
Last April, Hammer resigned from St. Mary’s after telling parishioners that he had engaged in sexual misconduct as a young priest at the Louisville parish. He apologized and said he had gone through intensive rehabilitation.
However, the lawsuit includes an allegation that Hammer molested an 11-year-old altar boy at St. Mary’s last year. The boy is identified as John Doe minor.
David Bernard, 33, said he was an 11- or 12-year-old altar boy when Hammer allegedly began molesting him.
“It was something that always bothered me,” Bernard said. He said he decided to come forward a few months ago, contacting the Louisville Police Department, after hearing about Catalano, who was a boyhood friend.
Listed as John Doe 62 in the lawsuit, Bernard said he decided while standing in front of the courthouse Thursday to identify himself publicly. It was a show of solidarity with Catalano, who is the only named plaintiff.
Bernard, who lives in Paris Township in Stark County and is employed in sales, was joined in his gesture by Eric Sanderbeck, 34, who is identified as John Doe 61 in the 23-page suit.
Sanderbeck, who said that he and Bernard have been good friends all their lives, said he was floored when he found out earlier this year that Bernard and Catalano were accusing Hammer of molestation. He said none of the men had shared with anyone their experiences involving Hammer until recently.
“I’m definitely sure that we weren’t the only ones (St. Louis parish altar boys) who were molested by Hammer. I hope the others will now come forward,” said Sanderbeck, who still lives in Louisville and works as a truck driver.
Anderson said his clients filed the suit to “sound the alarm” about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. He said if the late Bishop James Malone, the former head of the Youngstown Diocese, “had sounded the alarm” in the late 1970s, countless young boys would have been spared the torment of encountering Hammer.
Earlier this year, Youngstown Bishop Thomas Tobin acknowledged that the Catholic Church had not handled the sexual abuse issue well, and he said the “practice of hiding the crimes, silencing victims and transferring the offending priests to other assignments and potential new victims was terribly misguided.”
Efforts to reach Youngstown Diocese officials for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.