Woman sues Greensburg diocese, claims officials protected priest accused of rape | TribLIVE.com
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Deb Erdley

A woman is suing the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, claiming she was repeatedly raped by a priest in her Seward parish in 1972 after the priest was transferred there because of earlier abuse allegations.

The woman, identified only as Jane Doe, said she suffered horrific sexual abuse at the hands of the late Rev. George Pierce starting in 1973 or 1974, when she was about 11, and continuing until 1978.

The lawsuit is the most recent allegation to surface against the late clergyman, who was singled out in an August 2018 grand jury report detailing abuse allegations against 301 Pennsylvania priests charged with abusing more than 1,000 children over several decades.

Doe’s attorney, Altoona lawyer Richard Serbin of Janet, Janet & Suggs, said Doe, who is now in her 50s, initially applied to the Greensburg diocese’s compensation fund. She opted to pursue a lawsuit instead after she was offered $88,100 and informed that was the maximum the church would be offering anyone.

Church officials have yet to reveal how many claims or how much was paid through the fund they said was established to help victims heal.

Serbin, who won a landmark abuse case against the Catholic Church in 1994, said settling her claim held little appeal for Doe. The woman kept quiet for decades only to learn through the grand jury report that she was among several victims of a priest who traveled from parish to parish in the Greensburg diocese from 1959 through 1998.

“She is not interested in that,” Serbin said. “She’s stepped forward to bring this to the public’s attention in the hope that other kids are spared this. … This man George Pierce was an evil monster. But as evil as he was, those who allowed him to continue, including the bishops of this diocese, were more evil. Bishop (William) Connare knew about this before (Pierce) ever came in contact with my client.”

A spokesman for the diocese declined to comment Wednesday, saying it had not been served with the complaint.

Doe’s complaint details how, as a small child, she accompanied her mother to the church and rectory at Holy Family Church in Seward, where the woman worked as a cook and housekeeper.

She said Pierce began grooming her by “putting his arm around her shoulders asking (her) to lie down next to him on the floor, kissing her on the cheek and saying nice things to her.”

The complaint outlines how, over time, his attentions escalated to rape.

She said when she protested, Pierce, who knew her father was ill, threatened to have her mother fired. Shortly after that, Doe said she ran away and attempted suicide.

Serbin said Pierce’s abuse left his client scarred for life.

He said she suffered headaches, nausea and lost sleep after learning of the diocese’s role in protecting “serial child molesters.”

Pierce, who died in 2009, served more than a dozen parishes between 1959 and 1998, when he retired.

The grand jury report details how Connare, who served the diocese from 1960 through 1987, first received complaints about Pierce in 1972, but allowed him to remain in parish ministry until 1997.

That year, the diocese paid $30,000 to settle an abuse suit against Pierce. It included a nondisclosure clause that barred the victim from publicizing her settlement.

The diocese later sent Pierce for a psychological assessment. It concluded he had both a sexual disorder and a personality disorder.

In 2002, records revealed that the diocese received a complaint from a man who said Pierce forced him to perform sex acts beginning in 1969, when he was 10 years old. The man said Pierce told him he had to perform the sex acts “in order to be saved and go to heaven,” after he told Pierce he was gang raped by his older brother and a group of boys shortly before his seventh birthday.

Finally, on Nov. 18, 2004, then-Bishop Lawrence Brandt requested that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger dismiss Pierce from the priesthood. Brandt’s letter said Pierce admitted to committing the acts.

“Only 32 years after Bishop Connare had notice, did anyone file a petition to laicize him,” Serbin said.

Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations bars adults from filing suit for child sexual abuse after they turn 30. But Serbin said Doe is suing subsequent to a Superior Court ruling he won in a case against the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. The ruling, now being appealed, said a similar lawsuit could proceed if officials in charge of the abuser were aware of his actions, shielded him and failed to notify those at risk.

The suit charges diocesan officials with fraud and conspiracy for failing to notify unsuspecting parishioners of Pierce’s history. Doe is seeking punitive and compensatory damages.

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