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Lawsuits Allege Former Seminarian, PSU Shenango Professor Sexually Abused Boys While Assigned to State College Church

by on August 13, 2019 1:57 PM

New lawsuits filed this week in Centre County Court allege a now-deceased former seminarian and Penn State Shenango professor sexually abused two children while assigned to Our Lady of Victory in State College in the late 1960s and early 1970s, after Jesuit and Altoona-Johnstown Diocese leaders knew or should have known he molested children in New York.

The lawsuits, filed by attorney Richard Serbin, say Leonard Riforgiato, who was known as "Father Lenny," repeatedly sexually abused two boys before leaving the Jesuit order in 1972. The alleged victims are identified as John Doe and John Doe 2, who the latter of whom Serbin said died by suicide.

The Northeast Province of the Society of Jesus, New York Province of Society Jesus, province provincial John J. Cecero, current Altoona-Johnstown Bishop Mark Bartchak, the estates of former bishops Joseph Adamec and Father Joseph Riley are named as defendants in the lawsuits, which claim fraud and conspiracy.

A year after leaving the Jesuits, Riforgiato joined the faculty of Penn State Shenango, where, according to an obituary, he was an associate professor of history and in 1984 was named teacher of the year. A teaching award at the campus was named in his memory, but was suspended in April, after Riforgiato was identified by the Jesuits among those accused of abuse . 

Riforgiato taught religion and history at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, N.Y., from 1964 to 1966 and was transferred, Serbin said, because he had molested children. A list of credibly accused Jesuits released by the Northeast Province in January of this year shows that Riforgiato admitted in 1969 to past "abuse of minors" while at McQuaid.

"It took 50 years for the Jesuits to inform the public about Riforgiato's involvement in violating children," Serbin said at a news conference on Tuesday. "They were aware before he arrived at Our Lady of Victory Church in State College of his violation of children... He was not discharged from the Jesuit order until 1972. That is three years after his admission to molesting children."

Serbin said that John Doe and John Doe 2 were repeatedly sexually abused as teenagers by Riforgiato, who assisted with mass and the altar boy program at OLV. Riforgiato allegedly began abusing John Doe when the boy was 14-years-old, giving him excessive amounts of alcohol before assaulting him. During the final assault, Riforgiato raped John Doe, according to Serbin.

Father Joseph Riley was Riforgiato's supervisor and roommate and allegedly witnessed Riforgiato giving alcohol to children and some of the assaults. Serbin said it is his understanding Riforgiato was never ordained as a priest but dressed as one and was called "Father." Riley was an ordained Jesuit priest, he added.

John Doe 2 was "very religious," serving as an altar boy and church volunteer. Serbin said he believes John Doe 2's alleged abuse led to his depression, and ultimately, suicide.

"A child that is sexually abused, there is as time goes on a lot of self-loathing, humiliation and embarrassment the abuse survivor suffers, [and] depression," Serbin said. "As a result of these feelings suicide is frequently on their mind."

He added that John Doe has suffered from alcohol abuse and depression.

Both accusers and their families were "groomed extensively," by Riforgiato, Serbin said, by buying the boys gifts, taking them to restaurants and bowling and building trust with their parents so he could be alone with their children. 

Serbin said that while Riforgiato was in State College he became involved with Centre County Children and Youth Services. According to his obituary, during his time at Penn State Shenango, Riforgiato was an instructor in gifted programs at local private and public schools and a member of the Mercer County Child Welfare Board. 

Serbin said the new lawsuits highlight a problem with victim compensation funds. The Jesuits do not have a compensation fund for abuse victims and Altoona-Johnstown is the only diocese in Pennsylvania not to have one in the wake of sweeping grand jury reports alleging sexual abuse by hundreds of Catholic priests statewide, often hidden by church leaders.

He added that the two cases are an example of why Pennsylvania's General Assembly needs to pass legislation that will open a window for victims to pursue claims for abuse after the statute of limitations has expired.

The Centre County lawsuits are similar to suit filed by Serbin in July on behalf of a client in Dauphin County. In June, state Superior Court ruled, in another of Serbin's cases, that claims of conspiracy and fraud against the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese presented an exception to the statute of limitations applied to sexual abuse claims, according to PennLive.

[A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that an award at the Shenango campus is "now named in [Riforgiato's] memory." This has been corrected to reflect that the award in his name was suspended in April.]



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected]statecollege.com or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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