LAWSUIT: MAN ALLEGES ALLENTOWN DIOCESE PRIEST SEXUALLY ABUSED, TORTURED HIM IN CHURCH BASEMENT IN THE 1970s
May 20, 2020
Laurie Mason Schroeder
The Morning Call
A Texas man is suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown and one of its churches, St. Catharine of Siena in Reading, claiming he was sexually abused and tortured by several priests in a church basement in the 1970s.
Timothy Paul McGettigan’s attorneys say their client learned that he was not alone in being abused by Allentown Diocese priests from the scathing 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report on unchecked sexual abuse by clergy across the state, and decided to come forward. He is seeking a jury trial and unspecified monetary damages.
In the lawsuit, filed this week in Lehigh County Court, McGettigan alleges he was sexually abused by two priests, the Rev. Joseph Grembocki and the Rev. David A. Soderlund, as well as several other priests he cannot identify.
Grembocki died in July 2016 while serving as pastor at Assumption BVM Church in Slatington. He is not named in the Pennsylvania grand jury report and no other accusation has surfaced against him.
Soderlund was defrocked in 2005 and moved to Wyoming, where he was sent to prison for exploiting children and possessing child pornography.
Soderlund was named in the grand jury report and is a registered sex offender in Wyoming.
McGettigan’s lawsuit comes well beyond the statute of limitations, which gives a person until their 30th birthday to file a civil case alleging abuse from childhood.
McGettigan’s attorneys said the grand jury report revealed to them “an entirely new set of facts previously unknown” and claim that the diocese “made, and continues to make” efforts to protect predator priests by "actively concealing known facts of sexual abuse of children, failing to report such abuse to the proper authorities, and failing to properly remove sexually abusive clergy members from their positions and their access to minor children.”
Church officials were unaware of the lawsuit until The Morning Call contacted them Wednesday and did not comment on the allegations.
“The diocese learned about the lawsuit from a reporter. We will be reviewing it,” diocese spokesman Matt Kerr said.
In the 35-page lawsuit, McGettigan said he was one of five children of a widow who was devoutly Roman Catholic. His father died from a heart attack.
In April 1972, the lawsuit says, Grembocki made a surprise visit to the family’s Reading home, and McGettigan’s mother confided to the priest that she was concerned about the well-being of McGettigan and his brother.
The suit says Grembocki offered to take the boys “under his wing” to make sure they successfully completed their Catholic studies.
During what McGettigan was told was Bible study at St. Catharine’s, the suit alleges, Grembocki gave the boys a strange-tasting drink that they were told was “sacramental liquid.” The drink made the boys drowsy and they would sometimes fall asleep, the suit says. The children would wake up in a basement or room below St. Catharine’s where Grembocki, Soderlund and two to three unidentified priests would sexually abuse and torture them, the suit states.
According to the suit, the priests would call McGettigan the “spawn of Satan,” and “devil child” during the assaults and blame him for his father’s death. The suit goes on to describe torture that McGettigan said he endured, including being sealed in a coffin with what he believed to be human bones and being plunged in a tub of urine to “counteract his baptism.”
Each torture session would end with the priests saying to McGettigan, “until death do us part,“ the suit states.
The suit also alleges that Soderlund started a “single moms with kids” club at St. Catharine’s to identify and groom vulnerable children, and that the priest would invite young boys on outings and road trips in a trailer that was stocked with liquor. Boys who became drunk were carried to the priest’s bed and sexually assaulted, the suit states.
When McGettigan refused to drink alcohol, Soderlund secretly drugged him, the suit says.
According to the grand jury report, Soderland served at St. Catharine’s in 1971 and the first abuse allegations against him date to 1980. The grand jury report does not allege Soderlund — or any of the 301 accused priests statewide — engaged in the kinds of torture McGettigan says happened in the church basement.
More than 50 Allentown Diocese priests have been accused of abusing children.
McGettigan’s attorneys say St. Catharine’s and the diocese should have protected children from the priests, but instead engaged in a pattern of covering up the abuse to avoid a scandal that was detailed in the grand jury report.
“Defendants’ conduct was outrageous in that they disregarded plaintiff’s safety and their duty to protect him from child rape and sexual abuse while he was in their custody and control, in favor of protecting their own reputation and financial interests,” Houston attorneys David P. Matthews and Tim K. Goss wrote in the suit.
McGettigan said in the lawsuit that he suffered physical and ongoing emotional injuries from the abuse. His lawsuit summarizes information from the grand jury report, which revealed that Soderlund admitted to sexually abusing three boys in 1980 while serving as pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Summit Hill. He was removed from ministry, underwent counseling and was told to have no contact with children.
In 1986, Soderlund became director of pastoral care at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center, Pottsville, and was removed after he “began to act out sexually with a young boy,” the grand jury report said.
Grembocki died in July 2016 at the age of 72 while serving as pastor at Assumption BVM Church in Slatington. According to his obituary, he began his career as parochial vicar at St. Catharine of Siena, and also served at St. John Baptist de la Salle Church in Shillington, St. Paul Church in Allentown, and was an administrator at St. Kunegunda Church in McAdoo.
Catholic churches across the state have been the subject of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests. In January, an Allentown Diocese report revealed that its compensation program for victims of childhood sexual abuse paid out nearly $9 million to 47 victims so far, with fewer than half of the claims received by the diocese resolved.
The fund was created in response to the grand jury report. Those who have accepted compensation received an average of $191,000, based on the information in the diocese’s report.
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