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Sex abuse lawsuits spread beyond Catholic Church to other denominations

A second woman has accused a former religious education director at a Lutheran church in the Town of Tonawanda of sexually abusing her when she was a child in the late 1970s.

Kelly L. Klose, 54, alleged in a lawsuit that Bruce Connolly abused her from 1976 to 1979, when she was 11 to 14 and attended First Trinity Lutheran Church on Niagara Falls Boulevard.

“It’s not just a sexual abuse. It’s a betrayal,” said attorney Steve Boyd, who represents Klose.

Boyd said his client has had a difficult life and that “all the rough parts” of it sprung from the relationship with Connolly, who groomed Klose to gain her trust and then preyed on her for years.

A vast majority of the more than 310 Child Victims Act lawsuits in Western New York are against Catholic Church entities, primarily the Buffalo Diocese. But child molesters operate in a wide range of denominations, religious groups and other organizations, and lawsuits filed last week in Erie County State Supreme Court bore that out, as four of the seven cases had nothing to do with the Catholic Church.

One case involves a woman suing a man who she says repeatedly molested her in the early 1980s, when she was a teenager and babysitting his children. Two cases involved Christian denominations other than Catholic: Klose's claim against the Lutheran church and an unnamed Erie County plaintiff's lawsuit against the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Marilla United Methodist Church.

Child Victims Act (updated 2/13/20)

The plaintiff accused the Rev. David Jelliff of abusing him in 1993. The lawsuit, filed by attorney Alison K. Haseley of Collins & Collins Attorneys, said that Jelliff was charged with third-degree sexual abuse as a result of the incident with her client.

Jelliff was pastor of Marilla United Methodist Church from 1991 to 1993. The church’s website said Jelliff withdrew his pastorate “under charges” in August of 1993. Jelliff died in 2005.

The lawsuit also accused both the Marilla church and the United Methodist conference of negligence in “aiding pedophiles such as David Jelliff by assigning, maintaining and/or appointing them to positions in which they have access to minors.”

A spokesman for the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Klose’s case was the second lawsuit filed in Erie County State Supreme Court under the Child Victims Act identifying Connolly as an alleged child molester.

Nora Kovach, 54, also has accused Connolly of repeatedly sexual abusing her from 1978 to 1981, beginning when she was 13. Kovach sued in August, naming as defendants Connolly, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Eastern District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Kovach said in her lawsuit that she informed the Eastern District in 1989 about Connolly’s alleged abuse and Connolly continued as a Christian education director at a Lutheran church in Minnesota. He stayed employed in the Lutheran church, working around children, as late as 2016, according to Kovach’s lawsuit.

Connolly, 64, did not return a voicemail left at his home in Minnesota.

Connolly left the Eastern District in the early 1980s to serve in another district, said the Rev. Chris Wicher, president of the Eastern District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Office files gave no indication of why Connolly left, said Wicher.

“It’s not unusual for our called workers to move around,” he added.

Wicher said he believes in the legal system and hopes that justice will prevail through the courts.

“Things need to be brought to the light in general and they should. That’s just the right way to do it,” he said.

But Wicher said the Eastern District was not responsible for hiring, assigning or supervising Connolly and should not be a defendant in the lawsuit.

“To say he was employed by the Eastern District just isn’t accurate. Congregations operate autonomously. We’re not hierarchical, like you find in the Episcopal Church or the Catholic Church,” he said.

In the Catholic Church, a bishop assigns priests to work in parishes or in other ministries. Instead of reporting molester priests to police, some Catholic bishops transferred them from parish to parish, where they continued to abuse children.

Wicher said Lutheran district offices don’t appoint pastors and church employees.

“We don’t move them around. Nothing like that,” he said.

Pastors and other church employees are “called” to those posts by the people of the congregations and ministries, said Wicher.

Boyd acknowledged that the Lutheran Church and other denominations have different corporate structures from the Catholic Church. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t negligent in their duty to protect children from molesters.

Boyd said he was anxious to examine the district’s personnel files to get a better understanding of what was known about Connolly and when it was known to administrators.

And if the district is “not negligent, they’ll be let out” of the lawsuit, he said.

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