Four religious brothers accused of sexual abuse at North Catholic decades ago
May 7, 2014 11:05 PM
Brother Bernard Hartman wearing a T-shirt he designed in honor of his 50th year as a Marianist brother.
By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
What started as a criminal case half a world away has triggered a cascading set of new and newly rediscovered allegations of sexual abuse against five religious brothers who worked at North Catholic High School in Troy Hill decades ago.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh says it has been alerted to a dozen allegations against Marianist brothers who worked there between the 1950s and 1990s. Three brothers are deceased, a fourth left the order long ago and a fifth, Brother Bernard Hartman, is in Australia awaiting trial on charges he molested four children there.
News of Brother Hartman's pretrial proceedings in March prompted diocesan officials to write in March to North Catholic alumni who attended the years Brother Hartman was there, urging anyone molested by him or anyone else associated with the church to come forward.
"As the diocese deeply regrets the harm that was done to anyone, we also commend the courage of those who have brought this important information to light," Michael Latusek, acting superintendent for Catholic schools, said in a follow-up letter sent April 24 to alumni, alerting them to the widening allegations. "In doing so, they have helped to protect others."
As of Monday afternoon, four people each had accused teacher William Charles Hildebrand and cafeteria worker Francis Meder, both of whom worked there in the 1950s and 1960s and are now deceased, according to the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, vicar general for the diocese.
Another man reported that he and his brother were molested by a former Marianist, John Keegan, who left the religious order in 1962 and whose current whereabouts are unknown. Mr. Keegan would be about 88 now if still living, Father Lengwin said.
One woman also contacted the diocese to say she had been molested by Brother Hartman, who was based at North Catholic in 1961 and 1979, and from 1986 to 1997.
Another person contacted diocesan officials to call attention to the 1986 conviction of teacher Ralph Mravintz, since deceased, in connection with sexual offenses involving a minor. He taught at North Catholic in the early 1960s as well as the mid-1980s, according to the diocese and news accounts.
Brother Mravintz was convicted in 1986 of disorderly conduct -- a reduced charge after he had been initially charged with making sexual overtures to a 15-year-old boy and fondling him -- and fined $200, according to a story in The Pittsburgh Press on Sept. 10, 1986. The story quoted a prosecutor as saying the reduction in charge was at the request of the boy's family.
In a letter to alumni, Mr. Latusek said the "diocese had no record of this charge." But it was aware of it. The Pittsburgh Press account quoted Father Lengwin -- then as now a spokesman for the diocese -- discussing Brother Mravintz's work record.
Father Lengwin said the diocese did not have its own record of the case because the victim went directly to police and the Marianists keep personnel records for their brothers.
There is no indication criminal charges were ever filed against the other three brothers, Hildebrand, Meder and Keegan.
Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said: "While we have received information on people who are potential victims of the deceased individuals, we have not received anything concerning Keegan. In sum, we have nothing that we can pursue at this time."
The Rev. Martin A. Solma, provincial for the Marianist Province of the United States, said in a statement:
"We were not expecting any other allegations and I was surprised and saddened to hear that other allegations have been made. These men have long been dead and there was no indication to the Province of any impropriety before that. The case of Brother Ralph Mravintz was a public matter in 1985 and the actual events, from what I can determine, were somewhat confusing.
"We continue to cooperate with the Diocese of Pittsburgh in receiving any complaints against our members and reaching out to anyone who has been harmed."
A statement by the advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests commended "the courage of North Catholic alums" who are reporting the abuse and the Pittsburgh Catholic officials for writing to them, as the group had urged. But it said the diocese should also post on its website the names of "proven, admitted and credibly accused child molesting clerics."
It added: "We find it very hard to believe that Pittsburgh Catholic officials had no records" about Mravintz's conviction.
The diocese plans to relocate what is now Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School from its longtime Troy Hill location to Cranberry later this year.
Brother Hartman, 74, faces a trial in Australia next year on 18 criminal charges that he sexually assaulted two boys and two girls in the 1970s and early 1980s, when he was posted at a school in Melbourne.
The March letter from the Pittsburgh diocese recounted the allegations in Australia and asked anyone who had been abused to report the incident to the diocese or Pennsylvania civil authorities.
After that letter yielded information about Brothers Hildebrand, Meder and Mravintz, Mr. Latusek sent a letter to about 9,000 alumni who attended in all years, asking anyone who had been abused by anyone associated with the church to come forward. After that letter came out, still more allegations emerged, said Father Lengwin.
The diocese has offered counseling to those who want it and is reporting all cases to the district attorney, even those involving deceased persons who cannot be prosecuted, Father Lengwin said.
The Marianist province has said it removed Brother Hartman from North Catholic in 1997 after learning of the Australia allegations.
But the order did not alert the public to the reason for his abrupt removal at the time, and the Pittsburgh diocese said it was unaware of the charges until this year.
"There could have been closer communication" between the Marianists and the diocese, Father Lengwin said.
Brother Hartman lived much of the time since 1997 in Dayton, Ohio, and the order said it prevented him from returning to teaching and kept him on a safety plan. But he remained a brother in good standing, and the general public knew nothing until an alleged victim in Australia went on record in 2011, spurring the criminal investigation.
According to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People -- the policies on sexual abuse adopted by U.S. Roman Catholic bishops in Dallas in 2002 -- a confirmed abuser is no longer permitted to "present himself publicly as a priest."
While religious brothers are not priests, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men -- the umbrella group for male religious orders including the Marianists -- agreed in 2002 to "honor the values and principles of the Dallas Charter."
The Pennsylvania abuse hotline is 1-800-932-0313 and the diocesan victim assistance line is 1-888-808-1235.