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Suit alleges sex abuse in diocese



Published: Fri, September 20, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



A lawsuit contends a former Youngstown priest has been sexually abusing boys for more than 20 years.

By D.A. WILKINSON

VINDICATOR RELIGION EDITOR

YOUNGSTOWN -- A lawsuit contends that the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown knowingly ordained a troubled man as a priest who then molested young boys.

Three men said from the steps of the Mahoning County Courthouse on Thursday that they had been abused by the Rev. John E. Hammer when they were boys in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The lawsuit also contends Father Hammer attempted to molest a boy, now 12, in April 2001, in the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich., where he recently has worked.

The civil action contends the two dioceses were engaged in a pattern of corrupt activity to conceal Father Hammer's crimes and avoid a scandal.

Steven M. Catalano, 33, of Columbus; Eric Sanderbeck, 34, of Louisville; David Bernard, 33, of Paris, Ohio; and the Michigan boy, who was not identified, are the plaintiffs.

One attorney for the men, Jeffrey R. Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., said the late bishop of Youngstown, James Malone, knew of Father Hammer's problems when he was in seminary.

"He was ordained and placed in a parish," said Anderson, who specializes in church abuse lawsuits.

The three men said they did not report the abuse at the time but have since reported it to police in Louisville, a town between Alliance and Canton in Stark County, where they were altar boys at St. Louis Church.

The lawsuit states the men had each been abused more than once, often during sleepovers at the church rectory. One assault was alleged to have occurred in a private home.

Lawyer: Malone knew

Allegations did surface against Father Hammer, and he underwent treatment. "We do know that Bishop Malone knew he was a child sex molester. ... Bishop Malone sent him out of state," Anderson said.

The lawyer said Father Hammer "groomed" the youths for abuse by befriending them and gaining their trust. The priest would often wrestle with boys and then initiate sexual contact, he said.

Catalano said when he learned earlier this year that Father Hammer might still be a priest, he thought, "If he is, then I better do something about it."

Catalano said Bishop Kenneth E. Untener of the Saginaw diocese told him Father Hammer "has been to counseling and we feel he is fine."

Bishop Untener has been head of the Saginaw diocese since 1980. The Saginaw diocese did not return calls seeking comment.

Monsignor Robert Siffrin, a spokesman for the Youngstown diocese, said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

"He was a friend. We went to movies. He was close to God and we tried to emulate him," Catalano said of the priest.

Anderson said Father Hammer only recently was removed from his parish in Saginaw, and his whereabouts have not been revealed.

Sanderbeck, who said he was speaking out in the hope that more people may come forward, said of the alleged abuse: "You definitely held it in."

Bernard said he felt shamed but didn't know what to do. "I put it in the back of my mind," he said.

Sanderbeck said that even though the three men knew one another, they had never talked about being abused until recently.

Barbara Blaine of Chicago, founder of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said a local chapter of SNAP may be formed.

Another lawsuit

Two other men contend in a lawsuit they were molested by another Youngstown priest. They are represented by Atty. Michael Marando of Youngstown, who filed the new lawsuit along with Anderson.

The plaintiffs are asking for more than $25,000 in damages. If the suit is successful, that amount could triple.

The Diocese of Youngstown has said there have been allegations against 16 priests. That figure includes priests who have died, retired or left the ministry.

No priest accused of molestation is now serving in ministry, according to the diocese.

Prosecutors in the Youngstown diocese who have been given information about local cases have said the statute of limitations bars prosecution. Anderson asked people to press for changes in Ohio law so abusive priests could be prosecuted.

The suit is assigned to Judge R. Scott Krichbaum.

wilkinson@vindy.com




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