The Diocese of Allentown is one of the more recent dioceses created in Pennsylvania. It was established in 1961 and covers five eastern counties in the state.
In its introductory pages, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report singles out the Diocese of Allentown in how the Catholic Church has handled the sexual abuse of children. “In the Diocese of Allentown, for example, documents show that a priest was confronted about an abuse complaint. He admitted, ‘Please help me. I sexually molested a boy.’ The diocese concluded that ‘the experience will not necessarily be a horrendous trauma’ for the victim, and that the family should just be given ‘an opportunity to ventilate.’ The priest was left in unrestricted ministry for several more years, despite his own confession.”
In their investigation of the Diocese of Allentown, the Report recognizes that there were other church leaders besides bishops who played crucial roles in the sexual abuse saga. They were Monsignor Anthony Muntone, Monsignor Gerald Gobitas, and Monsignor Alfred Schlert (who would later become the bishop of the Diocese). The Report notes,
“Evidence showed that priests engaged in sexual contact with minors, including grooming and fondling of genitals and/or intimate body parts as well as penetration of the vagina, mouth, or anus. The evidence also showed that Diocesan administrators, including the Bishops, had knowledge of this conduct and that priests were regularly placed in ministry after the Diocese was on notice that a complaint of child sexual abuse had been made. This conduct was enabling to offenders and endangered the welfare of children. Evidence also showed that the Diocese had discussions with lawyers regarding the sexual conduct of priests with children and made settlements with victims. Further, these settlements contained confidentiality agreements forbidding victims from speaking about the abuse under threat of some penalty, such as legal action to recover previously paid settlement monies.”
The Report identified 36 diocesan priests accused of sexual abuse, and three religious order priests. In reviewing and publishing the details of individual priests, some stand out for the egregious nature of the abuse or the corrupt actions of Church officials to keep the abuse quiet.
“The case of Father Francis “Frank” Fromholzer highlights the immense challenges faced by victims when seeking redress from a Diocese that chose to take a position hostile to the victim. The influence of the institution is evident in many cases. In the case of Frank Fromholzer, it is particularly evident.”
When one of Fromholzer’s female victims reported the abuse to the principal, Father Robert M. Forst, he expelled her from the school. Her father took the side of the principal and gave her a vicious beating.
After describing the harrowing experience of one survivor, the Report concluded, “However, it is evident that, once Julianne made contact with the Diocese in 2002, the Diocese and its attorney, Thomas Traud, attempted to undermine and discredit Julianne and her family. . . Having received a report that one of their priests had violated children, the Diocese and its attorney immediately began to exchange information meant to discredit the victim with unrelated and irrelevant attacks on her and her family. Moreover, the fact that information that a Central Catholic coach may have been sexually abusing students was used as evidence against the victim. In reality, it is the report of yet another crime not reported to the police.”
“The Grand Jury finds that the Diocese of Allentown and the Allentown Central Catholic High School knew full well the criminal conduct of Fromholzer. Yet, knowing that Fromholzer was preying on young girls, the Diocese and School took no action. The victims were told to let it go. When these victims came forward again years later, they were met with disbelief and scorn. Ultimately, internal records show that the Diocese itself deemed Julianne’s complaint against Fromholzer to be credible.”
In another case concerning Father Edward R. Graff, the Report notes that Graff raped scores of children and used euphemisms to describe the rapes and subsequent absences from ministry. Child sexual abuse was often minimized with terms such as familiarity, boundary issues, or inappropriate contact.”
In spite of Allentown Bishop Welch’s knowledge of Graff’s rape of children, he recommended him for ministry in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico. In spite of their knowledge concerning Graff and labelling him a “risk”, the bishops of Allentown allowed him to continue in ministry in other dioceses where he was eventually convicted of abuse. He died in prison.
Father Michael Lawrence was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Allentown in 1973 and, in spite of his own confession and multiple reports of abuse from survivors was allowed to continue in ministry until he voluntarily retired in 2015. The Report finds “Suspicions of Lawrence’s pedophilic behavior were brought to the attention of the Church as early as 1970 while Lawrence was attending St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.”
The Report concluded, “In spite of a documented confession to child molestation, Bishops Joseph McShea, Thomas Welsh, and Edward Cullen permitted Lawrence to remain in active ministry within the Diocese with all of the authority and trust of a priest serving on the Tribunal. The Diocese took no action to warn parents or parishioners of the Diocese that a predator was in their midst.”
Attorney General Josh Shapiro has had sharp words for the leadership in Allentown. Shapiro said it is “unconscionable” that Allentown Bishop Alfred Schlert is leading the diocese after handling the cases of predator priests.
The Allentown Diocese, he said, is “exhibit A” to support the allegation that the church covered up for sexually abusive priests and promoted those who enabled it.
The grand jury report does not suggest Schlert abused anyone but declared he had an “important role” in how the diocese handled sex abuse cases. Citing church records, the report identified Schlert in the 1990s and early 2000s, when he was a top church administrator, playing a role in how the diocese dealt with seven priests who had been accused of abuse.
In the case of Juliann Bortz, who brought an allegation to the diocese after The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” stories fired up the issue nationally, the report said Schlert received letters in 2002 from a diocesan lawyer presenting information meant to “discredit” Bortz.
Schlert was installed as bishop of the Allentown Diocese in 2017.
To Shapiro, that was payback for handling the cases of abusive priests. “The conduct of some of these church leaders including your local bishop, is abhorrent,” Shapiro said. “And the fact that he and others were rewarded for that conduct is unconscionable to me.”
The Diocese of Allentown may be characterized not by the number of priests accused of abuse but the aggressive and multifarious ways in which Church leadership assisted the abusers rather than the victims. Those leaders were rewarded by their Church for their actions, Schlert is just one glaring example.