Pittsburgh, PA - December 5, 2008 - Catholic clergy childhood sexual abuse and cover-ups were seldom discussed before the Boston Archdiocese scandal broke around Cardinal Bernard Law's mishandling of pedophile priests like John Geoghan, Paul Shanley, and others. According to Mike Ference, who began investigating similar issues in Western Pennsylvania after his son was shot by a boy believed to have been abused by a priest, that silence was, and is, a large part of the problem.
"Abuse has been documented for centuries," he explains. "And one reason it continues is that too many people remain silent, look the other way, or, worst of all, actively engage in a cover-up. The primary culprit may be the church hierarchy, but the problem extends to individual parishioners, law enforcement officials, politicians, journalists. Even today, the civil liberties of victimized children and their families are often deliberately ignored."
Ference believes in straightforward legal solutions advanced by people like Marci A. Hamilton, a leading U.S. church/state scholar and expert on federalism and representation. "In Hamilton's book, Justice Denied, she says that childhood sexual abuse in the United States is a silent epidemic because of a legal system that is not effectively protecting children from predators," Ference says. "Her solution is simple and direct - broaden or eliminate the statute of limitations for sex abuse crimes against children as one means of restoring civil rights."
Based on his 20-year investigation revolving around clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups, Ference asserts that the civil liberties of abused children and their families often fall prey to the Catholic hierarchy's ability to lure individuals into silence, influence law enforcement authorities, and manipulate the justice system. "Again and again, my investigation has turned up evidence of system-wide cover-ups - and individuals unwilling to confront the authority of the church and tell the truth. Many people I've contacted seemed afraid to discuss anything related to the church," he says.
With no police badge, or even a press pass, Ference has had little leverage to encourage people to talk. But driven by a desire to prevent others from suffering, he has persevered, piecing together a disturbing matrix of clergy-related abuse, corruption, and cover-ups involving multiple positions of authority in Western Pennsylvania. While he has distributed and published some of this information in the past, he believes the climate is now right to begin telling his story to targeted audiences and the public through a series of speaking engagements.
"Enough information has surfaced in the past few years that all but those deepest in denial now admit that the Catholic church hierarchy has systematically shuffled pedophile priests from one assignment to another, often placing more innocent children in harm's way," he says. "It's sad that it has taken this long, and this much evidence, to get people to remove their blinders, but people are now more receptive to my investigation - they believe it because they're hearing similar stories from all over the country. The tragedy is that in the 20 years I've tried to draw attention to this problem, it is likely that there were more victims who could have been saved if officials I sought help from had done their jobs," he concludes.
Given people's reticence to talk about abuse within the church, Ference acknowledges that he has often had to focus more on raising questions that need to be answered than on proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. "You be the judge," he tells listeners when relating his 20-year ordeal following the attempted murder of his son Adam on a Catholic school bus. "Did the McKeesport police do everything they could to protect civil rights and perhaps the lives of other innocent folks? Currently, McKeesport is being sued in two separate filings in federal court for civil rights violations in the famous Tanya Kach case - a fourteen-year-old girl taken and held captive for almost a decade by a school security guard with close ties to several police officers on the McKeesport force. Is that a coincidence - or a trend that has been going on for years?"
Ference points out that after his son was shot, McKeesport police were not permitted to investigate the crime scene for over 24 hours according to then Police Chief Thomas Brletic. "You can read that in the police report for yourself," he says, adding that it took him almost 19 years to gain access to the report. "Current McKeesport Mayor Jimmy Brewster refused to hand it over even after the Allegheny County District Attorney's office insisted. Brletic also told me during an interview that Pittsburgh Diocese spokesperson Father Ronald Lengwin pressured him to close the case prematurely. After a phone conversation with Brletic, McKeesport Detective Brian Washowich told me there needs to be a grand jury investigation into my story."
Ference adds that an insider tip was an early motive for his investigation. "Soon after Adam was shot, Clairton Public Safety Director William Scully approached my wife and me with inside details and handwritten notes and advised me to start my own investigation into the attempted murder. He openly admitted that the case had been quashed, but he was too afraid he would lose his job if he tried to take on the Catholic church," Ference explains.
According to Ference, a critical aspect of Scully's original notes and information referred to former Catholic priest John Wellinger possibly having sexually abused the boy who shot Adam, then killed himself. He adds that Wellinger was reported to the Pittsburgh Diocese in 1995 for allegedly sexually abusing Chris Mathews, an 11-year-old altar boy at Holy Spirit Church in West Mifflin. "The boy's parents first met with current Pittsburgh Diocese Bishop Zubik to voice their concerns, but little was done. It wasn't until 2003 that Pittsburgh Catholic (official publication of the Pittsburgh Diocese) acknowledged that a sexual abuse crime may have been committed," he says. "By then, as with so many of these cases, the statute of limitations had expired for prosecuting the crime. Today, Wellinger lives just two blocks from the Clairton Education Center, a public school for children K though 12, and lives on his stipend from the Pittsburgh Diocese."
Ference says the statute-of-limitations fight is another reason he is stepping forward to share the results of his investigation. "We need to help other children who may have been victimized and families who may have had their civil liberties violated. Pennsylvania should do as California, Delaware and many states have-open a window, preferably two years or more, to allow victims of childhood sex abuse to name and prosecute their abusers," he says, adding that over 300 victims came forward in California. "One glance at the chilling results of the grand jury investigation into clergy abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and you know that crimes have been committed and covered up by the Catholic hierarchy. If we don't address that, we're complicit in those crimes."
Ference is currently booking speaking engagements with interested community groups and organizations, but he hopes to eventually speak to journalism schools, law schools, law enforcement conventions, and a range of other audiences. "I have three goals in telling my story. First, to spread the word about civil rights violations, sometimes involving the very people who are supposed to protect those rights; second, to try and find solutions so these violations will be less likely to occur, regardless of the power, resources or influence of the offenders; and third, to establish a reporting and prosecuting window for sex abuse victims in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States," he explains.
Ference says his investigation raises other disturbing questions: "Were law-makers and law enforcement officials compromised by Catholic church hierarchy who possessed information gleaned in the confessional?" he asks. "Did organized crime partner with the church hierarchy to influence law enforcement? I know that sounds like an episode of The Sopranos at first, but then you hear about the recent investigation involving former Catholic Archbishop Marcinkus, who may have ordered the kidnapping and murder of a mafia gang member's daughter to squelch an investigation into the Vatican Bank. We have to investigate all the possibilities."
Ference hopes that disclosing his evidence will inspire investigators with more experience and resources to begin digging for real answers to the questions he's raised. And, he adds, "maybe telling my story will inspire others to step forward and share their stories of abuse and civil rights violations."
To set up a speaking engagement or interview, or to review evidence from Ference's 20-year investigation, contact Mike Ference at 412-233-5491 or Ference@icubed.com.
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