CAPITAL REGION -- A one-time Schenectady priest is accused of secretly living with a woman and sexually abusing her children, in one of the two dozen Child Victims' Act cases filed in recent days against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.
The five grown children of Edith Steve filed the lawsuit Aug. 15 against the diocese, Bishop-Emeritis Howard J. Hubbard, and Francis P. Melfe, who was a priest in the Albany diocese from his ordination in 1954 until he resigned in 1979. His final assignment was a decade at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Schenectady.
Melfe, who was removed from the priesthood in 2012, has been on a diocese list of priests credibly accused of child abuse since 2015.
Since a one-year filing window under the Child Victims Act opened on Aug. 14, two dozen child abuse lawsuits have been filed against the diocese in state Supreme Court in Albany, with more lawsuits likely. Current Bishop Edward Scharfenberger issued a public letter last weekend through parishes, social media and the diocesan website acknowledging the many fresh allegations, and urging Catholics to draw strength from their faith.
"Please do not deprive yourselves, my dear brothers and sisters, of the sources of grace and strength we all need for our own burdens in life or for enduring what lies ahead," Scharfenberger wrote. "Do not rush to judge those who bring accusations forward, or those who are accused."
In the Melfe case, five siblings -- David F. Melfe, Sandra M. Sculli, Joann E. Steve, John J. Steve, and Robert G. Steve -- allege that Melfe secretly lived with their mother at a single-family home in Guilderland while he was pastor of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Schenectady's Bellevue neighborhood. Immaculate Conception closed in 2010.
The lawsuit charges that the four older children -- now in their 50s and early 60s -- suffered repeated sexual abuse at Melfe's hands, that he made them complicit in the alleged theft of funds from the church, that he gave them sips of martinis, beer and alcohol-soaked olives while molesting them, and that he fathered the family's youngest child, David F. Melfe, who was born in 1972.
In church, the lawsuit said, the children were told to address him as "Father Melfe," though at home they could call him "Dad."
As a result of the alleged abuse, the children all suffered "physical injury and pain resulting in emotional trauma and extreme distress," according to the lawsuit. The alleged acts by Melfe included "molestation, sexual assault, rape, incest, forced inebriation, corruption of minors by teaching them to steal, and physical and mental cruelty."
The lawsuit alleged that Hubbard knew or should have know about Melfe's illicit activities, as should have the two previous Albany bishops, Bishop William Scully, who headed the diocese from 1954 to 1969, and Bishop Edwin Broderick, who headed it from 1969 to 1977. Both men have since died. Hubbard became bishop in 1977, and remained until 2014.
"Allegations such as these are heartbreaking," said Mary DeTurris Poust, a spokeswoman for the diocese. "There is nothing I can say that can adequately convey the sadness we feel when we read the stories these survivors have relayed. All we can at this point as a Church, is to stand with survivors -- wherever they are on their journey -- and do whatever we can to listen to them, to accompany them, and to support them so that they can reclaim what was taken from them so long ago. As Bishop Scharfenberger so often says, we are a wounded family, a wounded Church, and our Church family cannot heal unless and until we help survivors get the justice they deserve and the healing or closure they need, although we know nothing can ever erase or fully heal what has happened to them."
Poust wouldn't discuss the lawsuit in detail, citing the pending litigation.
Melfe was ordained in 1954, and served at churches in Gloversville, Troy, Hudson and Albany before becoming pastor of Immaculate Conception in 1970. The lawsuit alleges that he met the mother of the four older children while at St. Patrick's Church in Albany, and began seeing the family regularly and then staying in their apartment.
Melfe, who is now 91 years old, lives in Schenectady. He did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
The Child Victims Act created a one-year window that started Aug. 14 for any adult survivor of child sexual abuse to file a civil lawsuit against their alleged abuser or a negligent institution, regardless of how long ago the abuse took place. The Child Victims Act became law in February, despite opposition from those who opposed lifting the statute of limitations that has limited the time after the alleged abuse when a case can be filed.
Among those currently facing an allegation is Hubbard, who has denied ever engaging in sexual abuse, but who has taken a voluntary leave from activity as a priest while the allegations are pending.
The diocese has expanded its list of offenders as of last Friday to include clergy credibly accused in other dioceses but with a connection to the Albany diocese, a list that will be updated as new allegations emerge. The list also includes three members of religious orders accused of abuse. The list currently includes 47 diocese priests, either living or dead, and three priests who have been charged in other dioceses.