Lawsuits allege decades of abuse by local priests

Earliest case claims abuse at St. Paul’s in 1945

OSWEGO — A deluge of lawsuits filed against the Diocese of Syracuse under the state Child Victims Act allege a long-standing, secretive and effective system for concealing clergy sex abuse.

Hundreds of cases are pending against the diocese, which last week filed for bankruptcy in the face of the overwhelming legal battle. Multiple complaints allege sexual abuse of children by priests associated with Oswego parishes. For this story, The Palladium-Times editorial team spoke with attorneys for the alleged victims, reviewed hundreds of pages of court and diocese documents and aggregated credible information from community members who claim to have knowledge of the situation. The names of all alleged victims are being withheld with identities redacted and replaced by the terms “the victim,” “the plaintiff” or “the child” where applicable.

The cases differ in decades, institutions and individuals but many components follow the same sad pattern: an underage male, involved with the Catholic Church through schooling or worship, is sexually abused by a clergy member.

“The Diocese of Syracuse knew for decades that its priests, clergy, religious brothers, religious sisters, school administrators, teachers, employees and volunteers were using their positions within the diocese to groom and sexually abuse children,” reads the opening of one complaint alleging abuse that began more than five decades ago.

In 1969, according to the case filed in New York State Supreme Court, the diocese “knowingly and recklessly disregarded the abuse of children and chose to protect its reputation and wealth over those who deserved protection.” The lawsuit specifically names Father Albert Proud, a priest, teacher and school administrator at Oswego Catholic High School (OCHS, also known colloquially as Cat High and later, Bishop Cunningham HS) who used his position to allegedly sexually abuse minors.

“No parent of ordinary prudence in comparable circumstances would have allowed (the victim) to be under the supervision of, or in the case, custody or control of, the Diocese, Oswego Catholic High School or Father Proud if the Diocese or school had disclosed to (the victim) and his parents that Father Proud was not safe and was not trustworthy, and that he in fact posed a danger to (the victim) that Father Proud was likely to sexually abuse him,” the complaint reads.

The plaintiffs claim (in the Father Proud case, and other cases) that the diocese “knew or should have known” that some of its priests were “known sexual abusers of children” and also that sexual abuse occurred “during activities that were sponsored by, or were a direct result of activities sponsored by, the Diocese and Oswego Catholic High School.”

Much of the substance of the complaints consists of drawing a direct line between diocese leadership and policies and abusive priests, claiming they worked together to conceal sexual abuse for mutual benefit.

“Upon information and belief, at all relevant times Father Proud was acting in the course and scope of his employment with Oswego Catholic High School,” read lines 44 and 45 of the lawsuit concerning Proud. “At all relevant times, (the victim) and his parents trusted Father Proud because the diocese and Oswego Catholic High School held him out as someone who was safe and could be trusted with the supervision, care, custody and control of (the victim.)”

The diocese also controlled OCHS at the relevant times along with “agents, servants and employees managed, maintained and operated,” the claim states. In the causes of action section, the plaintiff attorneys allege negligence in “giving Proud access to children, entrusting their tasks, premises and instrumentalities to him, failing to train their personnel in the signs of sexual predation and to protect children from sexual abuse and other harm.”

Another enumerated cause of action in the Proud complaint relates to “reckless, extreme and outrageous conduct” by the diocese and OCHS.

“This has been like a tidal wave,” said Michael Pfau, one of the attorneys representing Proud’s alleged victim. Pfau’s firm has taken on more than 700 cases of abuse statewide under the Child Victims Act, he said, including against other Catholic diocese and organizations like the Boy Scouts of America that are facing a legal reckoning from motivated abuse survivors. Some have been waiting nearly their entire lives for this opportunity for potential closure.

The earliest case of abuse the Pall-Times could uncover in reviewing recent legal filings dates to 1945. For two years, Father William J. Kiefer allegedly “engaged in unpermitted sexual contact” with a male child at St. Paul’s Academy on the east side of Oswego. The lawsuit again claims the diocese should have acted on prior knowledge Kiefer was not fit to work with children due to the potential for abuse. This is the first time Kiefer has been publicly identified or linked to credible allegations.

“As a vulnerable child who Father Kiefer had access to through (the diocese’s and parish’s) facilities and programs, the Plaintiff was a foreseeable victim,” the complaint reads. The diocese also allegedly failed to warn the victim’s family of the risk posed by Kiefer and consistently failed to inform law enforcement of ongoing sexual abuse within its walls.

“(The diocese and parish) knew or should have known of the danger posed by Father Kiefer and despite said notice, each Defendant failed, refused, and/or neglected to remove, reassign or restrict Father Kiefer’s access to children,” according to the lawsuit.

Another common thread in all cases: the extreme emotional and psychological damage done by priests and the diocese to alleged victims.

“It’s everyday little triggers,” said Karrie Damm, principle of Family Matters LLC, a local mental health treatment and continuing trauma education firm. Damm also serves on the board of the New York State Children’s Alliance Board.

From a song on the radio or a smell in a room, Damm said, survivors often struggle to deal with their abuse as its psychological aftershocks can manifest for decades.

“As a direct result… Plaintiff has suffered, and will continue to suffer: sexual and physical damage and abuse, great pain of mind and body, severe and permanent emotional distress, physical manifestations of emotional distress, embarrassment,  humiliation, physical, personal and psychological injuries,” the suit regarding Kiefer claims.

“Plaintiff was prevented, and will continue to be prevented, from performing normal daily activities and obtaining the full enjoyment of life,” the portion of the complaint alleges.

In the case regarding Father Proud, the language is similarly chilling.

“By reason of wrongful acts… (the victim) sustained physical and psychological injuries, including but not limited to, severe emotional and psychological distress, humiliation, fright, dissociation, anger, depression, anxiety, family turmoil and loss of faith, a severe shock to his nervous system, physical pain and mental anguish and physical and emotional damage,” the complaint reads.

All of those maladies — and more — are common effects of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy, experts say.

“The body keeps the score,” Damm said, citing a famous thesis of Dutch psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. “A central nervous system trigger alarms the body and brain that something bad might be about to happen. Survivors of abuse have to forever quiet that trigger to remind themselves they’re not in that predicament anymore. It’s a tremendous amount of work and energy.”

The Diocese of Syracuse’s bankruptcy filing last week moves all pending cases to bankruptcy court, where rules governing discovery (the process of requesting and analyzing evidence – in this case, any and all documentation of the diocese’s alleged policies of concealing abuse) are much more limited.

“Bankruptcy court makes it significantly harder, but doesn’t let the diocese off the hook,” said Taylor Stippel, also a plaintiff’s attorney for Oswego County-related child victims. “We’ll continue the civil discovery but (bankruptcy) is a strategic move to create a wall between survivors and the actual records of what the diocese knew and when they knew it.”

The diocese claims its bankruptcy filing is designed to most efficiently organize its assets to prepare for monetary settlements in Child Victims Act cases. Stippel says that’s a misunderstanding of why her plaintiffs have filed suit.

“They don’t want money, they want answers,” Stippel said.

Many plaintiffs allege the Diocese of Syracuse was typical of American Catholic institutions in its use of the “geographic solution,” as Stippel calls it.

“When someone had the courage to come forward, the priest was moved somewhere else or sent to a ‘treatment program’ that ‘cleared’ them to return to the ministry,” she says.

One such local priest plaintiffs allege to have sexually abused a child and was then sent to a treatment center was Father John F. Harrold. Harrold is listed on the diocese's list of credibly accused clergy released in 2018, and is alleged to have abused a male victim in the early 1980's at St. Mary of the Assumption. In 1986, it's alleged Harrold was sent for treatment, then returned to the cloth.

There is no scientific evidence that any treatment program can cure or permanently reform an individual predisposed to commit acts of child sexual abuse. Regardless, organizations persist around the United States that critics say serve as clearinghouses for abusive priests to receive cursory treatment then return to the priesthood — and continue abusive behaviors.

“There are several treatment centers famous for treating priests accused of sexual assault, said Stippel. “For many years these centers were providing evaluations to bishops — these priests were sent to treatment because they knew something was going on.”

The St. John Vianney Center near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is an organization that describes itself as providing a “residential health and wellness program for stabilization and treatment for clergy… with behavioral health and emotional problems, co-occuring disorders, addictions and compulsive behaviors, weight management issues and challenged spiritual wellness.”

In multiple conversations through the course of reporting this story, the St. John Vianney Center has been referenced as a treatment center for clergy accused of sexual abuse. Reached by phone on Friday, an official for the St. John Vianney Center declined to comment if its programming includes the treatment of criminal sexual proclivities. Request for comment to the diocese of Syracuse and Philadelphia, under which the center operates, were not returned.

Father Chester A. Misercola, who died in 2019, is alleged to have molested at least three boys at Cat High when it was known as Bishop Cunningham. School alumni have told The Palladium-Times Misercola’s criminal proclivities with minors were an open secret, both during and after Misercola’s time at Bishop Cunningham. Of the complaints reviewed by The Pall-Times filed against the diocese naming Misercola, the timeframe of his alleged abuse runs from at least 1974 to 1983. Reports from students who were contemporaries of Misercola suggest both the timeframe and number of victims is significantly greater. Misercola was also named to the diocese’s list of credibly accused clergy.

The tragedy of child sexual abuse in these and other cases is compounded by its preventable nature and the depth of betrayal of faith.

“Victims don’t want to think about their abuse every time they see a cross,” Damm said. “It shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. Now these victims will have to manage their symptoms, some for the rest of their lives.

EDIT: 3:42 p.m. June 26

This story has been updated with more accurate information regarding allegations of treatment of Oswego County priests who then returned to the church. Father John Harrold, not Father Chester Misercola, is alleged to have attended a treatment program in 1986.

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