Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Diocese of Orlando covered up sex abuse by clergy, lawsuits say
Orlando, Florida - Two men who say they were victims of clergy sex abuse three decades ago have sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orlando, charging that the bishop at the time covered up the molestation by transferring the accused priest among local churches.
The two lawsuits allege that Bishop William Borders, who later became archbishop of Baltimore, knew of the accusations against the Rev. Vernon Uhran but did nothing to stop the abuse. Instead, Uhran was transferred from parish to parish, "where he continued to have unfettered access to minors and was permitted to have frequent sleepovers in the rectories," according to the suits, which seek a total of $10 million in damages.
The suit is the first to allege that Borders had knowledge of sexual abuse by a priest but failed to act appropriately. Previous suits have made similar contentions against bishops Thomas Grady and Norbert Dorsey, who followed Borders' tenure in the Orlando diocese.
During the past three decades, the Diocese of Orlando has paid out millions of dollars in settlements in suits involving at least 10 priests. In several cases, the suits alleged that the diocese covered up the attacks and quietly transferred the accused priests, but none of those cases has reached a jury.
The unidentified men who sued Monday in Orange County Circuit Court charge that beginning in the mid-1960s, Uhran abused them and others through 1974 at rectories at St. Mary Magdalen Church in Altamonte Springs; the Church of the Resurrection in Lakeland; and on a cross-country trip in a recreational vehicle.
One of the men said the abuse began when he was 9 and continued through his teenage years, according to the suit. The other man said he was first abused at 14.
Later, Uhran, who also taught at Orlando's Bishop Moore High School, was transferred by Borders' successor, Grady, to St. Theresa Catholic Church in Belleview, in Marion County. According to the suit, further abuse took place there. Uhran was then assigned to Catholic parishes in Alaska and the Dominican Republic before being sent for treatment at a Catholic facility in New Mexico.
In 1992, Bishop Dorsey of Orlando removed Uhran from the ministry after allegations of sexual abuse. Carol Brinati, director of communications for the Diocese of Orlando, said Monday that the diocese did not learn of the first allegation of abuse against Uhran until that year.
Borders could not be reached for comment. Now 91, he served as the Orlando diocese's first bishop for six years beginning in 1968. He was appointed head of the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 1974 and retired in 1989.
In 1993, The Sun of Baltimore reported that a suit filed against the Baltimore Archdiocese alleged Borders was aware of credible charges that a priest there had sexually abused a teenage girl but allowed the man to remain in the ministry. That suit was settled out of court, and the priest apologized to the church and asked the girl and her family for forgiveness.
Uhran could not be located for comment. The plaintiffs' attorney, Jeffrey Herman of Miami, said he thinks Uhran still lives in the Orlando area.
The Diocese of Orlando's failure to remove Uhran from the ministry "after receiving credible allegations of sexual abuse is a breach of trust at the highest level," Herman said.
According to the suit, one of the men, then a 14-year-old altar boy, was sexually abused on 10 occasions in 1971 during a three-month cross-country tour that Uhran described as a "spiritual retreat."
Herman said Borders was informed of the allegations against Uhran by a third boy, who said he had been abused, and the boy's mother. Neither the woman nor her son is part of any suit against the diocese.
In July, the dioceses of Orlando and St. Augustine agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle other claims by three men who said they were sexually abused as altar boys by Uhran and the Rev. Hubert Reason. The men said Uhran and Reason abused them at summer camp at the San Pedro Retreat Center in Winter Park and at St. Mary Magdalen. Reason died in 1984.
In May, Orlando Bishop Thomas Wenski brought the accusations against both priests to the attention of three Central Florida parishes the priests had served: St. Mary Magdalen, Church of the Resurrection and St. Theresa. Wenski urged parishioners who had information about the two men to come forward.
See also, the never-ending chronicle of church-related crime.