The leader of a Roman Catholic religious order has written a letter of apology to victims of sexual abuse and to Catholics in the Diocese of Pittsburgh in the wake of allegations that eight of its brothers sexually abused minors while assigned to North Catholic High School since the 1940s.
"These reports have caused us much shame and deep remorse," said the May 27 letter written by the Rev. Martin A. Solma, the provincial, or supervisor, of the Marianist Province of the USA based in St. Louis.
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The accusations began with news in March that a criminal trial was set in Australia involving allegations against a Marianist brother, Bernard Hartman, for alleged sexual abuse that occurred while he was assigned in that country.
The diocese sent a letter to alumni of North Catholic, where Brother Hartman also worked, alerting them to the charges and urging any victims to come forward. That and a second letter led to an allegation of sexual abuse against Brother Hartman during his time at North Catholic and allegations against seven other brothers, most of them now deceased, who worked at the school in Troy Hill since the 1940s.
"First, I apologize to the victims who have suffered, some of you for many years," Father Solma wrote in the letter, addressed to Bishop David Zubik and other Catholics in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. It is being published in the latest edition of the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper.
"Thank you for coming forward and telling these stories, as painful as they are, and shedding light on these very sad events. ... I am deeply sorry and I ask you forgiveness," Father Solma wrote.
He also apologized to Catholics and others in Pittsburgh "for the betrayal of the religious witness we profess and which you had a right to expect."
Father Solma also asked forgiveness from Bishop Zubik and past diocesan leaders "which had entrusted the Society of Mary with the important responsibility for the Catholic education of students in the diocese. In these abusive instances, that trust was betrayed and our service to the diocese tarnished."
He said the order has policies in place today that would "prevent any tolerance for abusive behavior."
The letter was prompted by a steadily growing set of allegations after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in March that an Australian court had set a criminal trial for Brother Hartman on charges he had sexually abused minors in that country. Brother Hartman had also taught for several years at North Catholic from 1986 until his abrupt but unexplained removal in 1997, when the Marianists received allegations of sexual abuse while he was teaching in Australia. He had also spent brief assignments at North Catholic in 1961 and 1979.
In all, the diocese has received allegations of 23 cases of abuse involving 19 victims, with some individuals allegedly abused by more than one brother. One case involved the late brother Ralph Mravintz who was convicted in 1986 of disorderly conduct after originally being charged with sexually abusing a minor.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh has said the Marianists had not informed it of the reason for Brother Hartman's removal when it occurred in 1997.
Bishop Zubik said Friday that Father Solma's letter was an important step in showing that the Marianist "community is taking responsibility for it and apologizing for it" and recognizing the victims' pain.
"It's an act of sensitivity for any people who were victims," Bishop Zubik said, and it's "an act of sensitivity for the diocese."
Father Solma said in response to an email query that the order "will be in touch with those who have come forward to offer a personal apology and assistance for healing for those who request."
A statement by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests urged Bishop Zubik and Father Solma to "use their vast resources to reach out to other victims" of the brothers and to make known "the locations of these accused brothers during the times when they were not in Pittsburgh."
It also called on Bishop Zubik to send a letter to graduates of all Catholic schools, urging anyone abused to come forward, and encouraged anyone who was abused to "find the courage to speak up and contact law enforcement."
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith. First Published May 30, 2014 12:10 PM