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Marianist order focus of abuse probe with heavy ties to North Catholic

| Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Chris Wimmer, 55, poses for a portrait on Saturday, June 21, 2014 at his home near Wentzville, Mo. Wimmer says he was abused while attending Chaminade College Preparatory School, a Catholic Marianist school in St. Louis. (Photo by Whitney Curtis for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
Whitney Curtis
Chris Wimmer, 55, poses for a portrait on Saturday, June 21, 2014 at his home near Wentzville, Mo. Wimmer says he was abused while attending Chaminade College Preparatory School, a Catholic Marianist school in St. Louis. (Photo by Whitney Curtis for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

From the former North Catholic High School in Pittsburgh's Troy Hill to Australia, 157 victims have accused 31 members of the Marianist order of sexual abuse, records show.

Watchdog groups, victims and their attorneys say officials with the religious order failed to stop the abuse or to adequately supervise those accused. Experts say such abuse went on for decades in part because of a culture that granted members of religious groups more credibility than children.

A spokeswoman for the St. Louis-based Marianist Province of the United States did not respond to questions about how many members have been accused of abuse, where they taught, how many lawsuits have been filed nationwide and how much money has been paid in settlements.

But regarding at least one case, at North Catholic, the Rev. Martin Solma, head of the organization, said the order is “relieved that this information has become public and we can address the misdeeds of the past and help those affected to bring some healing and closure.”

Allegations against nine brothers at North Catholic stretch from 1945 to 1990, a timeline that doesn't shock prosecutors. Child abuse in the 1940s, '50s and '60s was not talked about as it is now, said Chief Deputy Attorney General Laura Ditka, a former Allegheny County prosecutor who oversaw sex abuse cases, including those involving the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

“Kids just didn't tell. It was ingrained that the priest was your friend, your moral compass, and it was kept secret,” Ditka said. “As we have progressed as a society, it's become much more talked about. Now, we teach kids to tell.”

Addressing wrongdoing

Among the cases is one at the renamed Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School that became public in March when the Pittsburgh diocese learned that Brother Bernard Hartman, 74, a former science teacher there, is awaiting trial in Australia on charges of molesting four students in the 1970s and '80s.

Letters the diocese sent to North Catholic alumni generated reports of abuse.

Dennis Unkovic, who was president of student council in 1966, said he was “absolutely shocked” when he read about the allegations.

“I never heard anything while I was in school — no rumors, nothing like that. There was no whispering about it. Some brothers we liked, some we didn't like, but nothing like that,” said Unkovic, 66, of McCandless, now an attorney. “It's a very sad, tragic story.”

The Marianists removed Hartman from North Catholic in 1997, upon learning of the Australian allegations. But the order waited 17 years before telling the Pittsburgh diocese.

“We certainly would have liked to have known, yes,” said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, diocesan spokesman. “That's something we would want to know as early as possible.”

The Rev. Charles Bober, president of North Catholic, said the last Marianist left the school 14 years ago. North Catholic is a diocesan school, accountable to the bishop, Bober said. Decades ago, the Marianists ran the administration and teaching, but as their numbers dwindled, fewer members of the order were involved with the school.

The affiliation stems from the school upholding its Marianist education tradition, and the order provides financial assistance to some students, Bober said. A Marianist sits on the school's 10-member board of directors.

“There was no thought that we need to get away from them because they're toxic. Anyone that's been around in the last 20 years knows that that did happen (within orders) and within the Church, and we're doing the best we can to prevent that from happening again,” Bober said.

Solma, who recently sent the diocese an apology, said the order knew of only one other accused abuser at North Catholic before March: Brother Ralph Mravintz, whom police charged in 1985. Accused of fondling a 15-year-old boy, Mravintz reached a plea deal with prosecutors to reduce charges of indecent assault and corruption of minors to disorderly conduct. Mravintz died in 2006.

“This has been a difficult and painful process for the people involved, for the diocese and for us,” Solma said. “Our recent initiatives are aimed at helping to address wrongdoing and assist those who have been harmed by any of our members.”

‘A long history'

The Tribune-Review found allegations leveled at other Marianist-affiliated schools over many decades. The order is affiliated with 19 secondary and middle schools around the world.

At least 14 of the accused Marianists, some of whom were defrocked, are dead; others' whereabouts are unknown, according to the Massachusetts-based watchdog group BishopAccountability.org, newspaper accounts, court documents and church officials. The alleged abuse goes back about seven decades.

Some schools were named in lawsuits by victims.

Bryan Bacon, 44, of Columbia, Mo., was a sophomore at St. John Vianney in St. Louis when he said then-Brother William Mueller, dean of students, fondled him in his school office and held a knife to his throat.

Bacon said he started having nightmares about Mueller in his 30s. He obtained a court judgment of $500,000 against Mueller in 2009 and settled a lawsuit with the high school and the Marianists for $165,000 in 2007.

“I think for a long time there was a culture of indifference with the Marianists, and I think you're seeing the product of that now,” Bacon said.

Mueller couldn't be reached for comment.

Psychologist Tony Mannarino, director of the Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents at Allegheny General Hospital, said child molesters “are very expert in hiding it. That's why it can go on so long and no one ever finds out.”

Costly settlements

Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability, said religious orders typically are less aggressive than dioceses in managing abusive members.

“The 31 known Marianists accused, including those recently revealed at North Catholic, show that the order has a serious problem with sexual abuse, and the North Catholic revelations suggest that more remains to be learned at other Marianist schools,” McKiernan said.

With 52 complaints against him, Mueller worked at several schools — though not in Pittsburgh. He was band director at Roncalli High School in Pueblo, Colo.

Attorney Adam Horowitz of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., sued the Marianists and Mueller on behalf of 23 victims in Colorado for incidents alleged to have occurred from 1967 to 1971. The case was settled for $4 million in 2008.

Mueller wouldn't answer questions in a deposition, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, Horowitz said.

In lawsuits, three Colorado victims said they told school officials about Mueller's sexual abuse but no one followed up. The order eventually made Mueller a principal in St. Louis.

“I can't think of a job less fitting for a pedophile than a high school principal,” Horowitz said.

Bill Zlatos and Bobby Kerlik are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Zlatos at bzlatos@tribweb.com and Kerlik at bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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