Women: Bishops Wrong

By Ed Palattella [Erie PA]
May 22, 2003

Three women who are suing the Catholic Diocese of Erie claim Bishop Donald W. Trautman defamed them in two ways - directly through a public statement, and indirectly from the pulpit.

The women, in a detailed civil complaint filed Wednesday, allege that Trautman wrongly characterized them as liars in a letter Trautman released as a public statement a year ago. Trautman was responding to the women's allegations about a priest, the priest's possession of pornography and the priest's interest in what the women claim was "deviant sexual conduct."

The women also allege that Trautman, after writing his letter, directed some priests in the Roman Catholic diocese to sermonize against the women. During those sermons, the women claim, their "credibility and integrity were seriously and maliciously attacked."

The women - Sally Beres, Ann Caro and Helen Rusnak, all of Erie County - want the diocese to pay each of them no less than $50,000 in damages to compensate them for what they claim is their damaged reputations. They said their complaints and allegations about the priest and the diocese are true.

The diocese declined comment on the suit. A diocesan official said the diocese had not yet been officially served the suit, which was filed at the Erie County Courthouse. Service of the suit typically occurs several days after it has been filed. The Erie Times-News provided a copy of the suit to the diocese.

"We have not been formally notified of the complaint, other than receiving the copy which was faxed to us by the Times-News," Monsignor Robert Smith, vicar general for the diocese, said in a written statement. "We have not had an opportunity to review the material."

The spokesman for the diocese, Gary Loncki, said he did not know when diocesan officials would be able to review the suit.

The diocese has 20 days to respond to the suit in court.

The women filed a notice in court in April that they intended to file a defamation suit against Trautman, the diocese and retired Bishop Michael J. Murphy. The complaint filed Wednesday sets forth the specific reasons for their suit, which involves the women's complaints against the Rev. Robert F. Bower, who has since resigned as a priest.

Bower left the priesthood a year ago over his arrest in 1999 on felony charges that he possessed child pornography on his personal computer. Problems with the way the state police handled the computer evidence prevented the case from going to trial.

Bower resigned after the Erie Times-News inquired about his status in light of the clergy sex-abuse scandal nationwide. An article that the Times-News published about Bower in April 2002 is central to the case between the women and the diocese.

The women's suit is the first legal action that the 13-county Catholic Diocese of Erie has faced in connection with the clergy sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church nationwide for a year. The suit alleges that Trautman, Murphy and the diocese deliberately slandered the women as a way to protect the reputation of the diocese.

The bishops and the diocese "had an interest in protecting the public image of the Diocese of Erie and in discrediting" the women, according to the suit. It claims the women had knowledge and information that Trautman, Murphy and the diocese "believed would cause serious injury to the diocese and themselves if the diocesan history with the Rev. Bower was disclosed to the public."

The women came forward with their previous complaints against Bower in an April 17, 2002, article in the Erie Times-News. They said they had complained to the then-active Bishop Murphy about Bower in 1982, but that Murphy did nothing. One of the women, Sally Beres, claimed she lost her job as Bower's church secretary after she and the other women told Murphy about Bower's possession of pornography.

Murphy, now 87, in the article said he had no recollection of meeting with the women 20 years ago. Trautman succeeded Murphy in 1990.

In response to the newspaper article, Trautman submitted a letter to the editor to the Erie Times-News, which the newspaper published on April 21, 2002. Trautman in the letter characterized the claims of the women as "outrageous" and said the claims lacked proof.

At about the same time, the women claim, Trautman issued a letter to priests in the diocese criticizing the women and asking that the priests sermonize against them in church. The women claim Trautman circulated his letters knowing the allegations against the women were "false and intentionally misleading."

The women also claim Trautman had access to diocesan records and other information that would have confirmed that the women were telling the truth. They claim Murphy defamed them by saying he had no recollection of the meeting.

The diocese, the women also claim, "had personal knowledge of Rev. Robert Bower's previous involvement with possession of homosexual pornographic materials and his interest in deviant sexual conduct."

The lawyer for the women, Richard Peterson of Greenville, said in an interview that he had anticipated that the diocese might want to discuss a possible settlement after he filed the notice to sue in April. He said the diocese instead asked for the filing of the detailed complaint, which puts the case on course for trial.

"It is in their hands now," Peterson said. "They have 20 days to file a response."


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