Friday, March 11, 2011

Priest accused 1976, only now suspended

http://www.philly.com/philly/news/local/117785703.html
First accused of sexual abuse in 1976, priest suspended this week
By Jeremy Roebuck and Kathleen Brady Shea

Inquirer Staff Writers

In 1976, a 16-year-old boy told the dean at what was then Bishop John Neumann Catholic High School in South Philadelphia that his religion teacher - Msgr. Michael Flood - had molested him on more than 16 occasions that year, according to a continuing civil suit.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia took its first definitive action to address those allegations Tuesday.

Flood, 71, was among 21 priests suspended this week amid allegations of sexual abuse or other improper behavior with minors. He had been serving as pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Glenside.

But his case sheds light on what a Philadelphia grand jury has described as an ongoing pattern in which church leaders failed to properly investigate allegations of clerical misconduct.

Although archdiocesan leaders have known about the accusations against Flood since at least 2009, they have never opened their own independent investigation.

"They're only suspending him now because the grand-jury report exposed that they don't take their responsibility to children seriously," said Thomas S. Neuberger, an attorney representing the unnamed, now 48-year-old alleged victim in a civil suit against Flood. "This is just window dressing."

Neuberger declined to name his client, but offered to see if the man would be willing to talk about the case with a reporter. His client had not responded to that request by late Thursday.

A church spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on Flood's case. Archdiocesan officials have thus far declined to name or discuss any of the suspended priests.

The monsignor, who could not be reached Thursday, has repeatedly denied the allegations made by Neuberger's client and has openly discussed the case with his parishioners, asking them to pray for him and his accuser.

He has voluntarily agreed to refrain from unsupervised contact with youth until the suit is resolved, according to a 2009 statement.

"I'm a little chagrined that the archdiocese would succumb to pressure from the District Attorney's Office," his attorney James S. Green Sr. said. "I have total sympathy for true victims of abuse by anyone, but I think this action was precipitous and unfortunate and could not be based on anything brought to light so far in the case."

The civil suit - currently making its way through a Delaware Superior Court in Wilmington - stems from Flood's time as a religion teacher at Neumann.

The plaintiff alleges that he was a ninth grader and Flood invited him to the rectory to talk before taking him on a ride to Wilmington's Bechtel Park - about 20 miles from the campus.

He told the teen that God wanted them "to express their love for each other." Flood then sexually assaulted him, the lawsuit alleges. Afterward, Flood warned him not to tell anyone because "others wouldn't understand" and would assume the teen was gay, the lawsuit alleges.

The student and the priest - always dressed in clerical clothing - took similar trips to the park every week for the next four to six months, according to the suit. Each time, the plaintiff alleges, Flood would assault him.

Eventually, the plaintiff's attorneys say, their client reported the abuse to the Rev. Edward J. Smith, then dean of students at Neumann. But Flood and Smith purportedly berated the teen, accused him of lying, and threatened to fail or expel him from the school should he persist in his accusations.

The boy eventually failed Flood's religion class and was forced to take summer school at a separate high school to make up the credit.

It remains unclear whether Smith ever reported the accusations to higher-ups within the church hierarchy, but he became mired in his own sexual-abuse allegations soon afterward.

In 2007, a federal jury awarded $41 million in damages to a Navy doctor who claimed Smith raped him more than 200 times in the 1980s, while the priest was the campus minister and a religion and English teacher at Archmere Academy in Delaware. That lawsuit said that Smith had been transferred to Archmere two years after he was removed from his position at Neumann for allegedly being caught sexually abusing male students there in 1980.

A 1985 letter presented in the case from the Rev. John E. Neitzel, then abbot of Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, to leaders in the Norbertine Order suggests officials attempted to hide Smith after the earliest allegations broke.

"It is not desirable at this time for Ed to remain in a ministry in the neighborhood areas and states served by Daylesford Abbey," Neitzel wrote. "Ed needs a new area and a new ministry to get a fresh start."

The church's handling of the accusations against Flood has been similarly evasive, Neuberger argues. Soon after his client filed suit in 2009, church officials issued a statement saying an "archdiocesan investigation is impossible" because the alleged victim's name was not given in the suit and because the civil case was before the Delaware court.

Neuberger challenged that claim Thursday. Although his client's name is shielded in the lawsuit's public record, he was required to identify the man to attorneys for the archdiocese and the seven other defendants named through the discovery process.

Flood was allowed to continue preaching at St. Luke's, and the accusations were never brought before the church's panel.

"What they're saying is a lie," Neuberger said. "They're using pages from their worldwide playbook of stalling tactics not to investigate."

Green, Flood's attorney, confirmed that both he and lawyers representing the archdiocese have the plaintiff's name. He questioned, however, the church's decision to suspend his client based on allegations it had known about for two years that had not been proven in court.

"The archdiocese has a lot of information about the plaintiff, which makes this action all the more surprising," he said. "I think they overreacted. It's unfortunate for Msgr. Flood. His parish stands behind him."

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