New lawsuit claims Ellwood priest molested siblings for years

ELLWOOD CITY — A Pennsylvania man is suing the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh decades after he says he and his sister were sexually assaulted by a priest in Lawrence County.

The complaint filed in Allegheny County Court by Altoona-based attorney Richard Serbin claims William Schneider, 65, of Cumberland County, was 8 years old when the Rev. James Somma’s sexual abuse began at the former Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, now Holy Redeemer.

The abuse reportedly continued for two or three years in the 1960s. Schneider was forced to expose himself and perform sexual acts on himself in the presence of Somma, who died in 2004, the lawsuit claims.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh was aware of Somma's “deviant sexual acts and continued to allow him to remain in the priesthood without consequence,” Schneider’s lawyer said, adding that Somma groomed the siblings and their parents over time, often taking the youngsters out for treats and purchasing expensive gifts their family could not afford.

“He made himself out to be a trusted family friend,” lawyers said in the complaint. Even after his family moved from Ellwood City to Pittsburgh, the abuse continued, he said.

Schneider's sister reported similar abuse to the diocese in the late 1990s, but church leadership dismissed her claim, lawyers said. She died before a lawsuit could be filed.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Bishop David Allen Zubik are all named defendants in the case. A diocese spokesman said the organization does not comment on pending litigation.

Somma served at the Ellwood City church from 1959 until 1964, his first assignment after ordination, according to a grand jury report exposing statewide child abuse at the hands of diocese clergy members. The Diocese of Pittsburgh comprises Lawrence, Beaver, Allegheny, Butler, Washington and Greene counties.

Seven priests — including five affiliated with the former Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church — from the Ellwood City area were named as accused pedophiles, including Somma.

Multiple people have accused the priest of molesting minors in the 1980s and 1990s. One unnamed woman said Somma forced her to engage in oral sex and sexual intercourse with him until her late teens. When she reported the abuse, church leaders concluded that Somma should not be removed from ministry based on his "strong denial, sterling military career, the passage of time and the victim's admitted psychiatric treatment,” according to the report.

Somma was later evaluated at St. Luke's Institu...

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