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Colorado man suing Bismarck Diocese comes forward

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A Colorado man suing the Catholic Diocese of Bismarck for negligence over sexual abuse by a priest who has said he suffered in the 1970s has lifted his anonymity.

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Colorado resident Steven Crochet, 46, is alleging in civil documents filed in U.S. District Court in Hawaii that he was abused by the Rev. Maurice G. McNeely, who at the time was under the supervision of the Diocese of Bismarck, at an Army base in Hawaii in the mid-1970s. Crochet said he was an alter boy at a Fort Shafter chapel where McNeely ministered to soldiers and families.

The complaint claims McNeely forced Crochet to perform oral sex on him and states the diocese should have known the priest was a pedophile and warned the plaintiff's family. Now in his 80s, retired and living in Michigan, McNeely is named as a defendant in the civil case, but has not been charged criminally.

Crochet said he was able to block out many of the memories of the abuse, which took place when was 11 and 12 years old, but was inundated with a flood recollections in adulthood, causing him personal, emotional and financial difficulties.

"From this, I lost my marriage, I lost my job, I lost everything," Crochet said. "The abuse I suffered has ruined my life. There were people in the church who knew this man was a pedophile before he came to Hawaii."

A trial date for early this month has been pushed back and Crochet said he expects the case to proceed to trial. When reached by phone in late December, McNeely's lawyer, Michael Tsuchida said he is confident his client will be vindicated.

"We know Father Mac is innocent," Tsuchida said. "There is no question in my mind that he will be vindicated and we're very confident in the civil justice system."

When reached for comment, Diocese of Bismarck spokesman Matthew Kurtz directed all questions about the case to an attorney. Messages left last week for Mandan attorney Tom Bair were not returned as of Saturday. Although the diocese wouldn't confirm, an individual working at St. Vincent's Catholic Church in Mott said McNeely worked at a Catholic school in Mott sometime between 1950 and 1980.

The 'Hoodlum Priest'

Minot native and Delaware resident Bill Guenthner graduated from Bishop Ryan High School in 1961. Guethner, who participated in a deposition for the case, said he remembers McNeely well from his days as a priest with St. Leo's Catholic Church in Minot in the early 1960s.

"We used to call him the 'Hoodlum Priest,'" Guenthner said. "He acted differently than any other priest we knew of. He used to hang around Bishop Ryan High a lot. He was chummy with all the teenagers and they were always boys -- he didn't spend time with girls. He would routinely spend time with boys late into the night, well past midnight, and there were never any other adults present."

Guenthner said he wasn't abused and he doesn't know firsthand of any specific references of abuse during McNeeley's time in Minot. Guenthner said he considered McNeely a "friend" during his high school years and that it wasn't until recent years that he began to question some of McNeely's habits from his school days.

"At the time, everything seemed fine," Guenthner said. "We didn't think anything of it. He was a priest so we trusted him -- it was a different time back then. When things started to come out about sexual abuse within the Catholic Church about 10 years ago or so, that's when I began to think about some of those things back in Minot. It certainly seems suspicious now."

Guenthner said the first time he met McNeely was at a Bishop Ryan dance when McNeely showed up wearing a black leather jacket with the "sleeves rolled up to his elbows."

"He was always cracking jokes, never really too serious," Guenthner said. "He always had a crowd of young people around him. Teenagers just seemed to gravitate to him."

Guenthner said he remembered taking boxes of items to McNeely in Mott after he was transferred there. Adam Horowitz, one of Crochet's attorneys out of Florida, said McNeely also spent time under the Diocese of Bismarck working at parishes in Mandan, Parshall and Marmarth, among other North Dakota towns.

Seeking unspecified damages, the lawsuit was filed under a Hawaii law that went into effect in April of 2012. The law provides a two-year window for sexual abuse claims involving minors even if the statute of limitations has expired. Crochet said Saturday that he "fully expects" the case to go to trial.

"I'm very confident in what we have," Crochet said. "I know what I've gone through because of the abuse I suffered and I hope others who may have been abused by (McNeely) come forward. It wasn't right how this was handled."

McNeely served as the headmaster of Hawaii Family Catholic Academy in Honolulu from 1987 through 2001, according to Horowitz. McNeely received public support last year from 2001 Miss America Pageant winner Angela Baraquio Grey, who attended the Hawaii school when McNeely was there. Baraquio Grey authored a piece in support of McNeely amid accusations in the civil case that appeared in the Hawaii Record, a news and opinion website, in late 2012.

McNeely published a book titled "Catholicism Without the Guilt" in 2006. A request made by The Press to Tsuchida to speak with McNeely was denied. It's unclear how long McNeely was under the supervision of the Diocese of Bismarck.

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Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
(701) 456-1207
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