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One woman claims priest molested her in 1970s, Erie diocese knew of past abuse. Suit, others linked to grand jury report.

A woman is using a new ruling in Pennsylvania law to sue the Catholic Diocese of Erie over claims it covered up child sex abuse allegations against one of its priests, the Rev. Michael G. Barletta, named as one of 301 “predator priests” in the statewide grand jury report issued two years ago.

The woman’s lawsuit, filed in Erie County Court this week, appears to be part of a growing trend. Other plaintiffs have filed at least three other legal actions against the diocese in Erie County Court since July 15, with claims related to sex abuse allegations or cover-ups.

The cover-up claims are linked to the release of the statewide grand jury report on Aug. 14, 2018. The woman and other plaintiffs are claiming they learned about the cover-ups through the grand jury report, giving them two years from the date of that report to sue under the statute of limitations for “fraudulent concealment,” fraud and similar claims.

A state Superior Court decision from June 2019 is giving the plaintiffs the legal leeway to sue, for now.

The woman who sued is claiming Barletta molested her in the mid-1970s, when she attended the grade school at St. Luke Catholic Church in Erie and when she was in ninth grade at an unnamed high school. She said Barletta was at St. Luke to say Mass, and that she witnessed him molest boys at St. Luke.

The woman is also claiming, in the crux of her case, that the Catholic Diocese of Erie knew about previous allegations of child sexual abuse against Barletta but covered up the claims; did not notify the police; allowed Barletta to remain in ministry; and refused to keep Barletta away from minors, allowing him to molest the plaintiff.

The woman is using the findings of the Pennsylvania attorney general’s grand jury report to back up the cover-up claims. The report used testimony and internal church documents to support other abuse allegations against Barletta, who taught at Cathedral Preparatory School in Erie from 1975 through 1994 and who retired as a priest in 2002, according to the report. The report alleged that, of the 301 priests accused of abuse statewide dating to the 1940s, 41, including Barletta, were from the 13-county Catholic Diocese of Erie.

The Catholic Diocese of Erie, “over the course of many years, concealed Father Barletta’s sexual abuse and knowingly exposed populations of children to an unreasonable risk of injury and sexual molestation,” according to the woman’s suit, filed in Erie County Court on Monday.

“Barletta was a danger to children,” the suit also claims, and the diocese “deliberately concealed this fact,” including from the plaintiff’s family.

The eight-count suit shows how the Catholic Diocese of Erie could be exposed to claims — and potentially millions of dollars in damages — related to old allegations of clergy abuse despite the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s refusal to immediately roll back the statute of limitations for filing lawsuits in those cases in response to the grand jury report.

The GOP-controlled Legislature instead approved the process to amend the state constitution to allow for retroactive lawsuits, though an amendment will take years and is not guaranteed.

In the case against the Erie diocese, the plaintiff, identified only as Jane Doe, is not suing directly over claims that Barletta abused her — claims that are barred, for now, because of the General Assembly’s refusal to change the law for the statute of limitations. Barletta is not a defendant in the case.

Jane Doe is instead suing over claims that the Catholic Diocese of Erie, the sole defendant, is liable because the diocese committed fraudulent concealment and fraud and engaged in civil conspiracy and other improper conduct by knowing about Barletta’s past abuse, failing to to act upon it and covering it up, all to the detriment of Jane Doe.

Superior Court ruling

Such claims of fraudulent concealment related to clergy sexual abuse have been allowed in Pennsylvania since June 2019, when the state Superior Court ruled in favor of a woman who sued the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.


The plaintiff in that case, Renee A. Rice, who has allowed her name to be used by the news media, said her childhood priest abused her in the 1970s and 1980s, but Rice’s suit focuses on a cover-up she said the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown engaged in for decades.

A three-member panel of the state Superior Court ruled the suit can proceed over the cover-up claims, despite the expiration of the statute of limitations for suing over her abuse allegations alone.

The court said a jury, rather than a judge, must be allowed to evaluate Rice’s contention that she could not have reasonably sued the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown sooner because she did not know about previous allegations against the priest.

Rice said she learned of the allegations after reading a separate state grand jury report about the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown released in May 2016. Rice is claiming, among other things, fraudulent concealment and civil conspiracy.

The state Supreme Court in March agreed to hear the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown’s appeal of the Superior Court’s decision in the Rice case, with no date set for oral arguments.

The case has drawn widespread attention from Catholic organizations and other Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, including the Catholic Diocese of Erie. Lawyers for the Erie diocese in May filed a friend-of-the court brief to support the position of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, which is arguing that the Superior Court erred in its decision.

In the case of Jane Doe in Erie County Court, the plaintiff is contending that, upon reading the statewide grand jury report in 2108, she learned for the first time “that the Diocese of Erie and its bishops had a long history of protecting child predators” and that the diocese knew or should have known about Barletta’s “inappropriate physical contact” with children before he molested her, according to the suit.

The woman’s lawyer told the Erie Times-News that Jane Doe is suing under the interpretation of the law that the state Superior Court established in the Rice case. The lawyer, Derek Braslow, of the Philadelphia area, said he believes the suit can proceed in Erie County Court while the state Supreme Court waits to rule in the Rice appeal.

Barletta’s previous denials

The Catholic Diocese of Erie could ask a judge to stay the suit pending a ruling from the state Supreme Court. A diocesan spokesperson said this week that the diocese had not yet been served with the suit and declined to comment. The diocese also typically has not commented on pending litigation.

Braslow said his client sued after she the Catholic Diocese of Erie rejected the claim she filed with the diocese’s compensation fund for abuse victims and survivors of abuse. Braslow said the diocese told the woman she missed the August 2019 deadline for filing claims.

“They said they would take care of these survivors,” Braslow said of the Catholic Diocese of Erie, “but they did not.”

The Catholic Diocese of Erie joined a number of the state’s other Roman Catholic dioceses in creating separate compensation funds in response to the 2018 grand jury report. The diocese also opposed the legislation that would have allowed plaintiffs to immediately sue over old abuse allegations.

With the compensation fund rejecting her claim, and with General Assembly rejecting an immediate roll back of the statute of limitations, Jane Doe decided to sue under the cover-up claims, Braslow said.

“This is the only recourse for her until Pennsylvania changes the law for retroactivity,” Braslow said.

The priest cited in Jane Doe’s suit, Barletta, is in is 80s and continues to reside in Erie and remains a cleric, though he is forbidden to function as a priest, according to the Catholic Diocese of Erie. He is on the diocese’s list of priests and laypeople credibly accused of abuse or other actions that would disqualify them from working with children. Erie Catholic Bishop Lawrence Persico, who has headed the diocese since 2012, established the list.

Barletta did not respond to a request for comment for this story from the Erie Times-News, which emailed him a copy of Jane Doe’s suit. In August 2018, following the release of the grand jury report, Barletta’s lawyer said in a statement that Barletta, who was never charged with a crime, “absolutely and unequivocally denies the scurrilous allegations made against him in the report.”

“While the victims of clergy abuse must be served justice for the suffering they have endured, the accusations against Father Barletta are meritless,” the lawyer said.

The Erie Times-News first reported on abuse allegations against Barletta in 2003, after the clergy abuse scandal erupted in Boston and spread nationwide.

In her lawsuit, Jane Doe repeatedly cites the 2018 grand jury report and its allegations against Barletta. Among them is the allegation that, according to the grand jury report, “from 1975 through 1994, when he was finally dismissed from Erie Cathedral Preparatory, Barletta admittedly abused 25 children and young men.”

Contact Ed Palattella at Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.