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PITTSBURGH (ChurchMilitant.com) - The first lawsuit against the diocese of Pittsburgh since the Aug. 14 release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report has been filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.
Based on information contained in the report, on Tuesday, Pittsburgh attorney Alan Perer filed suit against the diocese of Pittsburgh, Bp. David Zubik and Cdl. Donald Wuerl, who headed the diocese from 1988–2006.
Perer is representing complainant James Saitta, who alleges that, from ages 12–17, he was sexually abused by John S. Hoehl, a former priest for the diocese of Pittsburgh.
Hoehl was ordained in 1964. By the early 1980s, he had amassed more than 20 complaints of sexual abuse, all of which were on file with the diocese, according to the grand jury report.
In 1986, he was placed on leave after a series of previously undisclosed sex abuse allegations surfaced. The diocese sent him to a treatment center where he admitted he had abused multiple Quigley high school students.
After completing his "therapy," Hoehl was reassigned by the diocese. He left the active priesthood in 1988 and was laicized in 2004.
Saitta claims that Hoehl began sexually assaulting him in 1979, when he was sent to the priest for counseling. The alleged assaults occurred at Hoehl's cabin in Somerset, south of Pittsburgh, and at the priest's residence at Quigley Catholic High School, where he served as headmaster.
"He has suffered tremendously from this over the years. He kept silent, not knowing that the church knew about [Hoehl] and not knowing that he was one of so many victims of this particular priest," Perer said. "It's repulsive, to tell you the truth."
Hoehl is not included as a defendant in the suit because the statute of limitations has run.
Currently, state law bars civil claims stemming from childhood abuse after a complainant turns 30 and criminal claims after age 50.
Perer has said he hopes Saitta's case advances to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, as it could force the state to expand the statute of limitations for victims of clerical sex abuse:
Because of what was included in the grand jury report, we are seeking to expand the statute of limitations on claims against the diocese — not against the offending priest, only against the diocese — related to their concealment, their conspiracy of silence, so that victims such as my client, James Saitta, could never have discovered the cover-up, the widespread abuse by this priest until now. Because of the cover-up, because of the conspiracy, because these people couldn't know that they were among dozens of victims and that the church knew about it.
"It's not fair to allow them to say that the statute of limitations has expired when, in fact, they hid the information and they hid the evidence that you would need to bring the case within the statute of limitations," Perer added.
When asked to comment on the lawsuit, Pittsburgh diocesan spokesman Fr. Nicholas Vaskov replied, "We cannot comment on pending legal action."
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese of Washington, meanwhile, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: "As reflected in the grand jury report, Jack Hoehl was removed from ministry with minors on May 4, 1986, before Bishop Wuerl arrived in Pittsburgh."
"After he arrived, Bishop Wuerl removed Hoehl from all ministry on November 29, 1988," she added. "Bishop Wuerl also successfully opposed Hoehl's 1989 petition to the Vatican for reinstatement to ministry, preventing him from returning to any ministry again."
According to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, as bishop of Pittsburgh, Wuerl covered up the crimes of multiple predator priests, even paying hush money to a member of a clerical child porn ring.
In spite of evidence to the contrary, both Wuerl and current Pittsburgh Bp. David Zubik continue to insist they're innocent of wrongdoing.