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Woman who kept her abuse by a priest secret for 66 years gets six-figure settlement

For 66 years, she kept a dark secret about how her parish priest in Pennsylvania sexually abused her when she was just 6 years old.

It took a brush with mortality to convince the now 85-year-old woman to “put all of her ducks in a row” and file a report against the Rev. Martin J. Fleming, her lawyer revealed Wednesday.

Fleming in 1940 committed “two acts of childhood sexual abuse against ‘Jane Doe’ after her mother passed away,” attorney Michael Garabedian said in a statement. “She has been attempting to heal ever since.”

Garabedian, whose crusade against abusive Catholic clergymen in Boston was dramatized in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight,” said the woman, whom he did not name, has been awarded a six-figure settlement by the Diocese of Scranton’s compensation program.

“The sexual abuse of any child is wrong. The sexual abuse of a child by a member of the clergy, no matter when it occurred, is particularly abhorrent,” the Diocese of Scranton said in a statement Wednesday.

“The Diocese applauds her strength for coming forward and hopes that the compensation aids in her healing,” the statement went on to say.

Fleming was assigned to Holy Name Parish in Swoyerville, Pennsylvania, at the time of the alleged abuse, the lawyer said. He died in 1950.

But Fleming, who was born May 2, 1869, and ordained in 1898, is on the Scranton diocese’s list of priests credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor.

Garabedian’s announcement came on the last day that priest sex abuse victims could register for the dioceses’ Independent Survivors Compensation Program, which has already paid some $7 million to 44 survivors, according to the local Times-Tribune newspaper. The program was established in January of this year “to bring some peace and healing to survivors,” the Diocese of Scranton said.

“She’s as strong as an ox but she is terrified about anybody finding out that she was a victim, there is still a lot of shame there,” said Robert Hoatson, a former New Jersey priest and clergy sexual abuse survivor who now runs Road to Recovery, an organization that helps other victims. “She is not the oldest victim to come forward, but she is definitely among the oldest I have spoken with.”

Fleming’s accuser first told her story to a representative from the Diocese of Venice, Florida, which then reported the allegation on April 14, 2006 to the Diocese of Scranton, according to a summary Garabedian provided to the media.

Then on June 30 of that year, the accuser met with then-Scranton Bishop John Dougherty.

“She noted that she was in heart failure and ‘wants to put all of her ducks in a row,’” the summary said. “She advised that this deepest secret came back again and again to trouble her spirit and cause her emotional distress.”

Dougherty, the summary said, “called the abuse an abomination, expressing his deep sorrow for the wounding of her child self. The victim was strongly encouraged to consult with a woman therapist or trusted female friend.”

Dougherty retired in 2009 and could not be located for comment.

Fleming served as a priest in eastern Pennsylvania from 1898 until he died. He had served in seven different parishes before he arrived at Holy Name parish in Swoyersville, which was then known as “The Irish Church.”

Hoatson, who works closely with Garabedian, said he is not aware of any other abuse complaints against Fleming but added: “I’m sure my phone will start ringing once this story comes out.”

“As a Church, we must recognize the burden of what has happened and continue to encourage anyone who may be a survivor of abuse to come forward,” the Diocese of Scranton said.