Class-action suit demands Pa. dioceses release names of all accused priests
A class-action lawsuit filed Monday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court is asking the court to force officials in Pennsylvania’s eight Roman Catholic dioceses to disclose all records pertaining to child sexual abuse since 1948.
The lawsuit charges that four grand jury investigations over the past decade and a half support their contention that church officials have failed to meet their obligations as mandatory reporters of child sexual abuse.
Ryan O’Connor, a Penn Hills man who says he suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a priest while a child, and Kristen Hancock, a Mt. Lebanon woman whose child is enrolled in Catholic school, said they filed the suit on behalf of survivors of childhood sexual abuse and parents of children who attend Catholic schools. They said recent grand jury reports support their contention that the dioceses failed to meet their obligation to report suspected child sexual abuse.
O’Connor has two children enrolled in Catholic schools. He said he worries other priests whose names have not been released are still being allowed around children.
“I believe in the message of the church and what it teaches,” O’Connor, 46, said Monday. “I try to raise my children that way. I don’t want them or any other children to have a head full of memories that I did not ask for.”
The new complaint is the latest fallout from a statewide grand jury report released last month that concluded 301 priests abused more than 1,000 children across the state over seven decades.
While many of the incidents cited in the reports occurred prior to 2000, the plaintiffs say the record suggests the church was remiss in reporting allegations to authorities.
The lawsuit notes that only 10 of the priests named in the statewide grand jury report are listed in the Pennsylvania Megan’s law database, a registry of individuals who have been convicted or pleaded guilty to sexual offenses.
Spokesmen for the Pittsburgh and Greensburg dioceses defended the church’s policies on reporting sexual abuse.
“At the Diocese of Greensburg, any and every allegation, regardless of credibility, is immediately called in to Pa. ChildLine and reported to the appropriate district attorney, whether the allegation is minutes old or 70 years old,” spokesman Jerry Zufelt said in an email.
The Pittsburgh diocese reports all allegations of sexual abuse of minors to law enforcement, said the Rev. Thomas W. Kunz.
“The Diocese of Pittsburgh requires all clergy, employees and volunteers to undergo criminal background checks and participate in child protection training, which has been done for more than 70,000 people who serve in its churches, schools and institutions,” Kunz said in an email. “Anyone in our churches, schools and institutions who has regular contact with children must also participate in mandated reporter training.”
Pittsburgh lawyer Benjamin Sweet of Carlson Lynch Sweet Kilpela & Carpenter LLP, who filed the lawsuit, said it is all about protecting children. The lawsuit seeks the names of priests redacted from the grand jury report, as well as any names not included in the report, Sweet said.
The lawsuit seeks only information, not money, Sweet noted.
“What we know is that there are over 1,000 victims that came forward,” Sweet said during a news conference in Downtown Pittsburgh. “We had 301 priests that were named. History suggests … that there are hundreds if not thousands of additional priests, hundreds if not thousands of additional victims, and the paperwork incumbent of that, all of which has not been released to the public.”
Sweet pointed to cases in California to prove that point. The Los Angeles archdiocese spent a decade settling lawsuits. As of 2014, it had paid out $740 million to more than 500 survivors.
O’Connor was 9 or 10 in the 1980s when the Rev. Martin McCamley, a priest at Our Mother of Sorrows Church in Johnstown, sexually abused him while he was a student at the school there, he alleged.
“He was at Sunday dinners, coffee after dinner, come over and hang out and visit mom and dad,” O’Connor said. “He was a permanent fixture.”
In 1997, when O’Connor was 24, he reported the abuse to the Cambria County District Attorney’s Office and was told there was nothing they could do, he said.
Monday marked the first day O’Connor publicly shared his story.
“I believe with all my heart there are good men in the church still, and they need to do what I’m doing right now, what other survivors are doing right now, they need to stand up and be heard,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor and his family attend St. Joseph Church in Verona, he said.
Gov. Tom Wolf has asked lawmakers to deliver to his desk this session bills that would act on the grand jury’s recommendations and eliminate the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse — a request he reiterated Monday.
The Survivors Network of Abuse by Priests, or SNAP, supports the lawsuit.
“Church officials claim they want transparency. So they should welcome, not fight, this lawsuit,” said Judy Jones, Midwest founder of SNAP. “We applaud those who clearly want to expose wrongdoers, protect kids and end cover ups.”
“Parishioners, parents, police, prosecutors and the public need and deserve to know the names of every Catholic employee, current and past, who committed or concealed these heinous crimes. Releasing these names also helps victims, who are still scared and silent, to know that they are not alone.”
Theresa Clift and Deb Erdley are Tribune-Review staff writers. Contact Theresa at 412-380-5669, [email protected] or via Twitter @tclift. C ontact Deb at 412-320-7996, [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.