PITTSBURGH — A California woman claims that Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua groped her when he was a bishop and she was a student at a Pittsburgh-area elementary school in the 1980s.
Heather L. Taylor of San Diego named Bevilacqua and two other priests in a lawsuit filed Friday against the Diocese of Pittsburgh, accusing current or former church officials of fraud and conspiracy by covering up the alleged misconduct.
Though the late Philadelphia archbishop has long been accused of complicity in concealing sex abuse by diocesan priests, Taylor's claim marks the first time anyone has publicly asserted that he sexually abused a child.
The complaints, and two similar lawsuits concerning allegedly abusive priests, were filed in Allegheny County Court by Pittsburgh attorney Alan Perer. They come on the heels of last month's scathing report by a statewide grand jury that accused the diocese and five others of concealing decades of clergy sex abuse.
Taylor, 45, claims she was abused by the clerics from ages 5 to 13 on separate occasions at the school and rectory of her parish, St. Gabriel in Whitehall. Her lawsuit says the priests, the Revs. Lawrence O'Connell and Edward Huff, sexually abused her multiple times when she was a student at the school and her family belonged to the parish. In both cases, she says, the priests took her to the rectory and fondled her.
The claim against Bevilacqua is far less detailed, and doesn't include a date range or suggest repeated contact. According to the lawsuit, "during his visit to St. Gabriel's Bishop Bevilacqua took plaintiff behind the partition in the lunchroom and groped plaintiff's chest."
The lawsuit doesn't elaborate or cite any information or evidence to corroborate the claim, but asserts that Pittsburgh diocesan officials, including Bevilacqua's successors, Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Bishop David Zubik, "were familiar with O'Connell, Huff and Bevilacqua's sexual interest in children."
The diocese did not have immediate comment on the claims.
Bevilacqua led the Pittsburgh diocese from 1983 until 1988, when he was named archbishop of Philadelphia, where he became a cardinal.
Two grand jury investigations since 2004 have indicated that Bevilacqua knew about sexual misconduct against children by Philadelphia-area priests and had approved the reassignment and shuffling of abusive priests. He died in 2012, shortly before one of his top aides was convicted of child endangerment for allowing a suspected abusive priest to remain in a parish with access to children.
Taylor's complaint says she was between ages 5 and 7 when O'Connell would fondle her on top of her school uniform. The lawsuit estimates that the abuse occurred more than a half-dozen times between 1977 and 1979, and that O'Connell and a nun identified as Sister Irene told Taylor that "if she was to tell anybody what happened, she would go down the drain in the bathtub."
She alleges that when Huff took over as pastor at the church in 1983, he invited her to the rectory to see the new parish dog and put his hands up her skirt into her vaginal area. That abuse, too, the lawsuit says, took place more than a half-dozen times between 1983 and 1984.
Huff resigned in 1993 before pleading guilty to two counts each of attempted indecent assault and corruption of minors and one count of indecent assault in Lawrence County in 1995. He was sentenced to serve 15 months to five years in prison. According to the grand jury report released last month, a handwritten note in Huff's file said he "admitted to touching 500 kids and targeting at least 1,200."
The report found that the Diocese of Pittsburgh, along with the five others across the state, showed a pattern of hiding child sexual abuse over seven decades to protect the reputation of the Catholic Church. In Pittsburgh alone, the report identified 99 abusive priests.