Two men come forward as litigants in priest-sex-abuse suits
By Joseph A. Slobodzian
Inquirer Staff Writer
Breaking with anonymity – but not loosening the tenacious hold of childhood sexual abuse – two men announced Tuesday that they had sued the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, church officials, and three priests.
The emotional statements by Andrew Druding and Michael W. McDonnell highlighted a Center City news conference where their lawyers also announced six other lawsuits on behalf of seven victims purportedly abused as children by archdiocesan priests.
“What you did didn’t define me,” said Druding. “I may be damaged goods, but I’m not going to allow you to beat me.”
Druding, 51, of Holmesburg, struggled to control his voice as he said he had been sexually abused in the early 1970s by the Rev. Francis S. Feret, then choir director at St. Timothy parish in Mayfair.
“You took advantage of a 9-year-old boy who loved to sing and who was afraid to tell because you were a priest, God’s messenger on Earth and the most holy person in my life,” Druding said as his wife, Denise, wept in the front row of seats.
Feret, 75, was an archdiocesan priest from 1963 until March 2011, when he was suspended from active ministry while at St. Adalbert parish in Port Richmond. In May, he was found “unsuitable for ministry.”
McDonnell, 44, of Bristol, described growing up as the youngest of eight children, all of whom attended St. Titus parish and school near Norristown.
McDonnell said that in the late 1970s and early ’80s when he was an altar boy, he was sexually abused by two priests – the Rev. John P. Schmeer and the now-defrocked Francis X. Trauger.
“We were taught that the hands raised over us in blessing were those that represented the hands of Christ here on Earth,” McDonnell said. “Never did I imagine then, and struggle to believe it today, that those hands could abuse a child of God.”
McDonnell, who described years of mental-health and addiction problems, spent a year in prison after pleading guilty in 2010 to defrauding the archdiocese by submitting more than $100,000 in bills for psychotherapy sessions that never occurred. He also admitted stealing $9,000 in donations and payments to the Bucks County Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, where he worked.
Trauger, 67, was laicized in 2005 after complaints of sexually abusing children and spent almost two years at St. John Vianney, the archdiocesan hospital for priests with sex, alcohol, or drug problems. Schmeer, 77, was removed from public ministry in 2004 and then agreed to a supervised life of “prayer and penance” at Villa St. Joseph, a retirement home for priests.
The eight lawsuits join eight others involving different victims filed earlier in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court by Marci Hamilton, a legal advocate and expert on child sexual abuse; Malvern lawyer Daniel F. Monahan; and Jeffrey R. Anderson, a veteran litigator involving church sex-abuse cases, based in St. Paul, Minn.
Although the criminal statute of limitations has passed for all nine victims, Hamilton said there was a basis for a civil conspiracy lawsuit because “the church’s cover-up continued right up to the start” of this year’s trial of Msgr. William J. Lynn.
Lynn, 61, the first church official charged for his supervision of a priest accused of sexually abusing children, was convicted of child endangerment and is serving three to six years in prison.
“The abuse must stop,” Hamilton said. “The cover-up, the incompetent handling of reports of abuse, must stop.”
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia in a statement said that church officials had not seen the new lawsuits and could not comment.
“We believe lawsuits are not the best mechanism to promote healing in the context of the very private and difficult circumstances of sexual abuse. We will work to assure all victims of sexual abuse receive appropriate assistance,” the statement read.
Dressed in suits, Druding and McDonnell also wore a veneer of poise that proved very thin.
After the news conference ended, Druding sat in a chair, shoulders rising and falling with sighs, as he tried to control himself, and as his wife held an arm around him and dabbed his tears.
McDonnell’s voice cracked as he referred to the “love and light of my life” – wife Debra Bashwinger and their 6-year-old son, Sean, in the audience. Bashwinger was weeping; Sean, unimpressed with the television cameras and photographers clicking away, played on the floor with a Thomas the Tank Engine locomotive.
“No one understands what the families of victims go through,” said Bashwinger, who added that without the support of her husband’s family, she would have become homeless while McDonnell was in prison.
“I think it’s important to put a face to the cost,” McDonnell said, referring to his reason for going public. “It’s important to show a doubting public that these victims do exist. We do live our lives, although we struggle on a daily basis. We are real people.”