Dianne Williamson: Clergy abuse case would reopen old wounds
Until this week, Susan Manter hadn’t set foot in a courtroom in five years, not since her shocking testimony about a beloved priest roiled a parish and sent the clergyman to jail.
In May of 2012, the Rev. Charles Michael Abdelahad of Shrewsbury was convicted of physically abusing the vulnerable mother of three during bizarre counseling sessions in which he slapped her, swore at her, kicked her in the shins, struck her with a miniature bat, knocked her head against a radiator, ripped her clothes off and bit her breasts. When she complained, the priest known affectionately as Father Mike explained that the two were engaged in “spiritual warfare” and that her body was “a battleground.”
Today, Manter said she wants people held accountable “for what they did.” More accurately, perhaps, she also wants them to pay for what they didn’t do, as these horrific counseling sessions dragged on for three years.
On Tuesday, the 49-year-old Holden woman sat in the front row of a Worcester Superior Court courtroom while her lawyer recounted the stunning actions of the priest and shameful inaction of those who knew what was happening at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, but did little to confront the priest or protect his victim. Manter has filed a civil suit against Father Mike and three others. One of the defendants is the late primate of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, Philip Saliba, who did nothing to intervene even when notified about the sessions. Archbishop Saliba died in 2014.
“I’m really looking forward to having my story told,” Manter said Tuesday. Asked if she was nervous about seeing the man who abused her, she said, “I’m angry. Nauseated. Nervous? Of course I’m nervous. It’s human nature.”
A trial is scheduled for June 1, but lawyers for the defendants were in court this week after asking Judge Shannon Frison to delay the trial because of a scheduling conflict, and so the two sides could pursue mediation.
“It’s a clergy abuse case,” said John Egan of Boston, lawyer for defendant Gregory Abdalah, the church’s youth director at the time. “I don’t think anyone is chomping at the bit to try this case.”
Manter’s lawyer objected to the delay, saying it would affect Manter’s emotional health.
“Going back to what happened to her for over three years takes her to a very dark place in her life,” said attorney Michael J. Heinlein. “I have grave concerns telling her we’re not going to trial.”
Judge Frison refused to postpone the trial date after Heinlein took her through the harrowing facts of a case that divided the parish and forced the departure of a quiet hero, the Rev. Don Peters, former associate pastor at the church and one of the only people who tried to intervene. Peters wrote to Saliba about the counseling sessions and testified against Father Mike, brave actions that nonetheless cost him the support of fellow clergy and parishioners.
In addition to Father Mike, Abdalah and the estate of Archbishop Saliba, Manter is also suing Jeffrey Solof, archdeacon at the church. Her lawsuit claims that Abdalah and Solof could hear the violent noises coming from the counseling sessions and were asked about them by a troubled member of the parish council, but they took no action.
“Their duties arise out of their obligations as employees to protect a parishioner who is not a stranger to them,” the lawsuit states. “Their duties as employees of the church were to take action when they knew, or should have known that this parishioner was being abused by a priest of the Church.”
In his decision denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Judge Richard Tucker wrote, “The defendants also argue that they owed no duty to Manter, as a matter of law, to ‘intervene and protect’ her … This court disagrees. Under the (church) Policy, the defendants had a duty as employees of the church to protect a parishioner and were required to report any suspicious events to a person in authority within the Church.”
Incredibly, despite his felony conviction, Father Mike has never been defrocked, although he is no longer associated with the cathedral or any church. And many clergy and parishioners have defended him while demonizing his victim and the Rev. Peters. It’s baffling, how these alleged people of God can justify such blind, misplaced loyalty.
“I’m shocked that he’s still a priest,” Manter said. Unlike the criminal case, the civil lawsuit also claims that Father Mike digitally raped and sexually assaulted Manter during the hours-long counseling sessions, held twice a week from 2007 to 2010. If anyone asked about his treatment methods, Father Mike would tell them that Manter was possessed by demons.
Judge Frison urged both parties to try to settle the case before trial, which makes sense. Opening old wounds is always painful, but to revisit the circumstances of this appalling event, along with the reprehensible behavior of the many people who stood by this errant priest and support him to this day, would cast yet another stain on a parish already tainted with too many.