Several abuse victims, including a Pennsylvania man who alleges he was victimized by two priests, are now able to sue the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, a legal step made possible by a change in a New Jersey law.
He was an 11-year-old altar boy when a priest from his parish at St. Titus Parish in Montgomery County, Francis Trauger, molested him in the shower after a basketball game and then brought him to the Poconos “under the guise of taking him skiing” and abused him in a motel, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.
The boy’s father sent him to “be counseled” by another priest, Rev. John Schmeer, who took the boy, then 12, to the Jersey Shore, and also abused him, according to the lawsuit filed against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Now the 50-year-old Pennsylvania man, who alleges he was victimized by two priests, has the ability to sue the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, a legal step made possible by a change in a New Jersey law that went into effect Sunday and opens a two-year window for survivors to sue their abusers, regardless of when the abuse occurred.
This comes more than a year after a grand jury report revealed hundreds of cases of abuse in many of Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic dioceses over several decades.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in New Jersey Superior Court of Ocean County, accuses the Archdiocese of Philadelphia of failing to stop abuse by Trauger and Schmeer, once a priest in New Hope’s St. Martin of Tours, and alleged that “the Archdiocese employed, retained, and assigned clergy who it knew or should have known were pedophiles (and) sexual predators.”
Trauger, who is currently awaiting trial while living in New York, was charged in September 2019 in Bucks County in separate abuse cases stemming from his time at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Tullytown.
In another lawsuit filed Monday in Cape May County New Jersey, a woman alleges Father John Paul, a priest who worked at Archbishop Wood High School from 1997 to 2000, sexually abused her for years, starting when she was 15 and attending Bishop McDevitt High School.
Both lawsuits allege that it was “well known” to the Archdiocese that some priests “would take children from Pennsylvania into other states, including New Jersey, in order to sexually abuse them.”
Both cases are among a wave of lawsuits filed in New Jersey on Monday seeking to “hold Catholic Archdioceses and Dioceses accountable for permitting, facilitating, and then covering up child sexual abuse by clergy,” according to a statement by the plaintiffs’ attorneys at Laffey, Bucci and Kent, which filed lawsuits on behalf of four survivors of abuse. They expect many more lawsuits to follow.
Unlike the previous law, which imposed a two-year limit, the New Jersey law extends the statute of limitations allowing victims of child sex abuse to sue until they turn 55, or within seven years of realizing the abuse caused them harm. It also allows victims to seek damages from institutions and opened the two-year window for all sex abuse claims, regardless of time limits.
“Today is extraordinarily important for survivors of childhood sexual abuse who before this new law had no opportunity to bring institutions such as the Catholic Church to justice,” the Plaintiffs’ Attorney Brian Kent said.
A Pennsylvania grand jury report, was a catalyst for many legal changes, triggering many states to change their laws. The 2018 report found that hundreds of Catholic priests in Pennsylvania molested more than 1,000 children since the 1940s. In nearly all of the cases, the statute of limitations ran out, meaning that criminal charges cannot be filed.
Last week, Pennsylvania passed legislation, giving victims more time to sue and police more time to file charges. But as of now, Pennsylvania’s legislation would not back this week’s legal actions taken in New Jersey, according to Pennsylvania Stewart Ryan, of Laffey, Bucci & Kent, the firm representing four of the plaintiffs.
“While the legislation recently passed in Pennsylvania is an important step forward it simply does not go far enough, quickly enough,” said Ryan.
“Pennsylvania has now enlarged the time with which a survivor of sexual abuse can pursue justice through the civil court system. Specifically, survivors age 23 and under now have until age 55 to file suit,” he said.
However, Ryan said, this does not impact claims that have already expired “often times because the survivor was a child and terrified to report their abuse.”
Instead of a law like the one in New Jersey, Pennsylvania legislature passed a law that would create a window “to allow the revival of expired claims for sexual abuse as a constitutional amendment.”
“That means the legislature will have to pass the same law a second time during their next legislative session and then the provision will have to be on the ballot in an election,” he said. “This will be a years-long process as opposed to New Jersey, New York, and many other states where survivors of childhood sexual abuse can pursue justice now.”
Identified in grand jury reports
Trauger and Schmeer were also named in a 2018 grand jury report and a 2005 grand jury report detailing abuse allegations against Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests. Both reports alleged that Trauger molested boys at other parishes. The Archdiocese said Trauger was placed on leave in 2003 when an accusation of child abuse from him was substantiated, and he was defrocked in 2005.
Trauger, who was named in the lawsuit and who worked in Bucks and Montgomery counties, however, was recently arrested and charged in Bucks County with sexual abuse.
He was arrested in September and charged with abuse stemming from alleged assaults on two altar boys, ages 11 and 12, while he was assigned at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Tullytown from 1993 to 2003.
The 50-year-old man now suing the Archdiocese alleges the abuse against him began while he was an altar boy at St. Titus in 1981.
According to the suit, “John Doe, who had recently been sexually abused by Trauger and was sent to Schmeer to discuss that abuse, was confused, scared, and disgusted. His feelings were only exacerbated by the fact that Schmeer was so close with his family, especially his parents.”
“The harm done to John Doe was made worse by the fact that John Doe was exposed to Schmeer and the abuse as a result of being abused by Trauger,” the suit says.
Both suits allege the victims were “groomed” by priests who forged close ties with families. In the suit filed in Cape May, the woman, called Jane Doe, alleged she was forced into sex with Paul, a priest at her high school, at 15.
The suit alleged that Paul sexually abused her in parking lots, the driveway of her friend’s house, and various hotels and motels, including one in Ocean City, and that the abuse continued into college.
The suit accuses the Archdiocese of Philadelphia of “repeatedly concealing its knowledge of credible accusations of sexual abuse against Paul.”
It states that the Archdiocese, instead of removing him from ministry, “engaged in a pattern of investigating Paul’s accusers in attempts to discredit them both privately and, when necessary to protect the Archdiocese, publicly.”
Since the 2005 grand jury report detailing abuse allegations against Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests, the Archdiocese released lists of clergy and lay employees who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children.
“While there is no doubt that these lists represent an incomplete accounting of what each Archdiocese or Diocese knows about abusive clergy or lay employees amongst its ranks, they nonetheless represent an admission that the particular Archdiocese or Diocese knew or should have known about the epidemic of predator priests,” the suit says.
Like Trauger and Schmeer, most of the priests named in the lawsuits filed this week had previously been on an archdiocese’s list of priests with “credible allegations against them.