Michael S. Lawrence
Diocese: Diocese of Allentown
From the Report I of the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania:
Father Michael Lawrence was ordained on May 19, 1973. Suspicions of Lawrence’s pedophilic behavior were brought to the attention of the Church as early as 1970 while Lawrence was attending St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. A student evaluation found within the records of the Diocese and obtained by the Grand Jury indicate that Lawrence was “a mysterious type who craves the attention of younger students” and that Lawrence showed “a little too much interest in younger students.” Regardless of these observations, in 1981, Bishop Joseph McShea wished Lawrence well and noted that Lawrence “and a group of young people from Saint Catherine’s Parish will be making a retreat on the weekend of November 20th_22″d.” The Bishop’s salutations are contained within his November 5, 1981, letter to Lawrence on the subject.
Less than a year later, a 12-year-old boy told his father that Lawrence had sexually abused him. A report written by Monsignor Anthony Muntone, dated August 18, 1982, indicated that Father Fred Loeper called the Chancery to report an “unfortunate incident.” Lawrence, then a priest at St. Catharine’s of Siena, Reading, had sexually abused a 12-year-old boy. The father of the victim called Loeper to report the details of the incident. The victim told his father that he had been in Lawrence’s room for a tutoring session. At the end of the session, the talk between Lawrence and the victim turned to sex. Lawrence then began to touch his genitals, had the victim take down his pants, and began to fondle the victim’s genitals. The victim’s father reported that his son had told him there had been “a lot of fondling, so much that he felt pain.” Additionally, Lawrence made the victim urinate. The victim’s father also reported the victim was having a hard time sleeping.
Muntone called Lawrence into his office and asked what had happened between Lawrence and the reporting victim. Lawrence responded “Please help me. I sexually molested a young boy.” Lawrence then admitted he had the victim come to his room for an English lesson. Lawrence had the victim remove his pants and underwear and Lawrence touched the boy’s genitals. He then drove the victim home.
Records indicate that Lawrence was sent to “Downingtown” (St. John Vianney Center) the same day he confessed to Muntone. Muntone wrote in his report that he spoke to “the doctor” at Downingtown, who informed him that the family of the victim should be given time to “ventilate” and what the victim experienced may not “be a horrendous trauma for the boy.”
Less than two years later, Lawrence was assigned to a high school to teach religion classes. A handwritten note to Bishop Thomas Welsh, dated April 9, 1984, reported that things were “going well” since Lawrence had taken over Bill Baker’s religion classes. The note went on to state that Lawrence would like to be “reassigned to the school with the spring appointments.” The note is signed Tony, for Anthony Muntone.
Lawrence continued in ministry as a Roman Catholic priest in the Diocese of Allentown in different parishes, schools, and other assignments. However, he was removed from parish ministry in 1987 and placed on “sick leave.” A letter from Welsh to Lawrence dated October 20, 1987, stated:
“On the advice of legal counsel, I write to inform you that effective immediately your faculties to celebrate Mass and otherwise function as a priest of the Diocese of Allentown are limited to the confines of the Convent at Bethlehem Catholic High School. I would ask you to make an appointment to see Monsignor Muntone at the chancery at your earliest opportunity.”
The Grand Jury learned that the father of the boy who reported his abuse in 1982 had continued to complain to the Diocese regarding Lawrence’s continued role in active ministry. The Diocese found itself, albeit temporarily, unable to maintain the secret of Lawrence’s conduct. On the advice of legal counsel, they removed Lawrence from ministry.
Lawrence met with Welsh on November 5, 1987. The following day, Lawrence memorialized his thoughts in a letter. Lawrence admitted that the possibility of legal action and his removal from ministry had caused him anxiety. He wrote, “I find myself in a very dangerous position. The deep sense of frustration and anger have led me to act-out sexually in the past and if my present situation continues it becomes a possibility again.” Lawrence referenced another known predatory priest, Joseph Rock, and opined that perhaps they could be a source of support for one another. Lawrence requested a compromise in which he could celebrate the liturgy at the Manor. Ultimately, Lawrence continued to serve as an active priest on the Diocesan Tribunal without a documented parish assignment.
But for the perseverance of the victim’s father, the Diocese would have returned Lawrence to active parish ministry as they had done time and time again, as documented within Diocesan records reviewed by the Grand Jury. Although hiding Lawrence in ministry within the Diocesan Tribunal was a poor substitute for actual removal from all ministries and titles, the efforts of this concerned parent kept Lawrence out of parish ministry.
The frustration this devoted father caused the Diocese of Allentown was documented in a confidential memorandum written by Muntone to Bishop Edward Cullen on May 5, 1998. Father Alfred Schlert was carbon copied. Muntone wrote:
“Something of a sticky situation has arisen with regard to Mike Lawrence who serves as secretary at the Tribunal. Back in 1987, it has come to light that Mike had been involved in some very indecent behavior with a young boy about ten or twelve years old, some five years earlier when he had been serving at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Reading. The father of the boy was about as angry as I have ever seen anyone, and I have the feeling that he was just short of resorting to physical violence. He was almost irrational and it was very difficult to deal with him.”
Muntone noted that once or twice the father of the boy came into the Diocesan offices and vented his anger. Muntone added, “It was pretty terrible.” Muntone stated that Welsh renewed Lawrence’s faculties on the Tribunal and that a new appointment for Lawrence was announced in the Diocesan newspaper. Muntone described the father of the victim as going “ballistic” and reported that he came to the Chancery once again, where he “complained bitterly that someone as evil as Mike was now being honored by the Church.” Muntone noted that the Diocese created a list of priests whose ministry assignments should not be made public without consultation with Diocesan administrators as a result of this incident. Muntone concluded his memo by highlighting “the problem” of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Lawrence’s ordination being at hand. Muntone asked for advice as to how to handle the normal process whereby Diocesan publications highlighted priest jubilarians of the Diocese under the circumstances. Muntone noted that, if the regular fanfare was provided for Lawrence’s anniversary, it could be problematic and result in the victim’s father “banging on the door once again.” Regardless, Lawrence continued in his priestly duties on the Diocesan Tribunal until 2002.
On January 6, 2002, the Boston Globe generated national publicity on the issue of child sexual abuse within the Archdiocese of Boston. In February 2002, Lawrence wrote to Cullen. Lawrence stated that, “in light of recent events and at the suggestion of Monsignor Alfred Schlert,” he wished to retire. Lawrence was granted a retirement and received a pension and healthcare benefits.
In spite of a documented confession to child molestation, Bishops Joseph McShea, Thomas Welsh, and Edward Cullen permitted Lawrence to remain in active ministry within the Diocese with all of the authority and trust of a priest serving on the Tribunal. The Diocese took no action to warn parents or parishioners of the Diocese that a predator was in their midst.
The 12-year-old boy who reported his abuse to his father in 1982 was not Lawrence’s only victim. In November 2009, the Diocese received another report of abuse at the hands of Lawrence. A victim called to report that he had been sexually assaulted on one occasion by Lawrence. He reported that Lawrence fondled his genitals when he was approximately 13 years of age. Lawrence was confronted with the complaint by the Diocese. He contested the age of the boy at the time and indicated that he believed he was 16 or older. Lawrence also indicated that he often helped the children dress in costumes for parish productions. To the degree contact occurred, Lawrence claimed it was accidental. There is no indication that the Diocese notified the victim of Lawrence’s earlier confession to molesting a child in 1982. Moreover, there is no indication that Barres told the Vatican of Lawrence’s earlier crime or his related confession when the matter was brought to the attention of the Holy See.
In December 2014, Barres notified the Vatican by letter that he would not seek the removal of Lawrence from the priesthood. He recommended that he remain in retired status. Lawrence died in April 2015.
Additional information regarding the widespread sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Dioceses of Pennsylvania and the systemic cover up by senior church officials is compiled in the Pennsylvania Diocese Victim’s Report published by the Pennsylvania Attorney General following a two-year grand jury investigation. A complete copy of the Report is available on the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s website.