Five adult siblings claim a childhood of abuse by the priest who kept them as his mostly-secret family 

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 

In this now-empty home in suburban Guilderland, Priest Francis Melfe lived for years with Edith Thomas and her children — the youngest his biological son — and sexually abused all five children, a lawsuit claims. 

GUILDERLAND — Five adult siblings recently claimed a childhood of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by Francis Melfe, a Roman Catholic priest whom, they say, kept them and their mother as his mostly-secret family at a large suburban Guilderland home. 

Edith Thomas, the mother of the five adult children, told The Enterprise this week, “They haven’t spoken to me since 1992.” 

She has prayed for them every day since then, she said. 

She declined further comment except to add, “Whatever they want to tell, they can tell, and anything they say is the truth.” 

The children now range in age from 47 to 62. One of them, the youngest, was fathered by the priest, their suit says. One of the plaintiffs declined comment, and the others could not be reached. Francis Melfe did not respond to requests for comment.

The Enterprise has a policy of not naming victims of sexual abuse. 

JoAnn Harri of Smalline and Harri, of Albany, called the plaintiffs “proud survivors” and said that they have all been exemplary parents to their own children. Harri is representing the plaintiffs, together with her partner, Martin D. Smalline. 

In their complaint, Thomas’s children allege a decade of sexual abuse, from 1969 through 1979, by Melfe against them while the priest maintained an elaborate deceit to try to keep his identity from their neighbors. He left the priesthood in 1979.

The complaint also alleges that the church hierarchy knew, before Melfe ever met this family, that he had been transferred from St. Joseph’s Church in Troy to St. Mary’s Church in Hudson “because he was stealing from St. Joseph’s Church and had been abusing children there.” Asked by The Enterprise how they know that, Harri said that they know “from another witness, an unnamed witness.” 

The suit names former Bishop Howard Hubbard as a defendant and charges that he and the rest of the diocesan hierarchy bore responsibility for failing to supervise Melfe or to take any action in response to reports that he was living in the suburbs with a family. 

The five siblings brought this suit to help other potential victims, Harri said, adding, “They’re really good people, and they want to make sure other people are OK.” 

The complaint was filed Aug. 15, just after the start of a “look-back year” established with the passage by New York’s state legislature in January of the Child Victims Act. (See related story.)

 The civil suit was filed on Aug. 15 in Albany County Supreme Court — the bottom tier of New York State’s three-tiered system. 

Albany County online records show that a total of about 25 civil complaints of child sex abuse have been brought against the Albany Diocese since Aug. 14. 

The New York State Attorney General has also, for the past year, been investigating how the state’s dioceses and other church entities reviewed allegations of sexual abuse of minors and whether they may have covered up these allegations. 

In response to the complaint against Melfe, spokeswoman Mary DeTurris Poust of the Albany Diocese issued a statement saying, “Allegations such as these are heartbreaking. 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 do 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 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.”

Francis Melfe, who is 91 and living in Schenectady, resigned from the priesthood in 1979, according to DeTurris Poust. He petitioned the Vatican to be “dispensed” from the clerical state — “laicized,” so that he would no longer be a priest — and this was done in 2012, she said. He is now married, but not to Thomas.

 

Complaint 

The complaint by Thomas’s adult children against the Roman Catholic Diocese, Bishop Howard Hubbard, and Francis P. Melfe, details their claims this way: 

Thomas was a single mother of four children who ranged in age, in the fall of 1969, from 3 to 12. Her oldest son attended St. Patrick’s School, on Central Avenue in Albany; the school was attached to St. Patrick’s Church, where Melfe was assigned. Thomas attended school conferences with the priest concerning her oldest son. 

Shortly afterward, the priest began visiting her and her children at night in their apartment on North Lake Avenue in Albany, eventually spending his nights in the apartment, the complaint says.

This began a process of grooming the family, the complaint says: The priest would give the children toys, bicycles, a drum set, clothes, and money, and take the family out to expensive restaurants in Kingston and Latham. 

During his nightly visits, the complaint says, the priest began sexually assaulting the three youngest children — two girls and a boy — ”when he bathed them each night, fondling them as he did.” 

Melfe was then assigned, in or about 1970, to the post of pastor at Immaculate Conception Church in Schenectady, which is within the Albany Diocese. 

He then moved Thomas and her four children to a large home in the Guilderland suburbs, the suit says. According to online records, the home had been owned by the grown children but went into foreclosure last fall. 

 

Thefts support “lavish lifestyle” 

Because Melfe had taken a vow of poverty and was unable to own property, the complaint says, the home was purchased by Dr. Thomas Qualtere, a psychiatrist from St. Clare’s Hospital whom Melfe paid $40,000 in cash for the house. Qualtere has since died, according to Harri. 

The house was on a double lot enclosed by a six-foot continuous stockade fence, the suit says, adding that it had a finished basement with a pinball machine, a foosball table, a shuffleboard court, a half-basketball court, a large in-ground pool, and a custom cedar closet that housed Thomas’s furs. 

The children began attending St. Madeleine Sophie School on Carman Road in Guilderland, a parochial school in the Albany Diocese. 

The priest’s “lavish lifestyle” while living in Guilderland included “a new Cadillac every two years, vacations, furs and jewelry for Edith, eating expensive food, i.e., lobster and steak, and throwing big parties,” the complaint says. 

Melfe supported this lifestyle by stealing from the church offering and from the parish Bingo Night at Immaculate Conception Church, the complaint says, adding that he involved the children in the theft by having them use a change counter to count the stolen money. The counting occurred sometimes in the rectory behind a closed door and sometimes at home, the suit says. 

Melfe kept large stashes of cash at the Guilderland home, including wraps of bank notes and buckets of coins, often totaling more than $30,000, according to the complaint; he kept the stolen money in the freezer and in a filing cabinet in the basement cedar closet. 

The children were instructed about what to call him: At church, where he served as pastor, they were to call him “Father Melfe.” At home, where he pretended to be their biological father, they were to call him “Dad,” the complaint says. If they ever became confused, they were to call him “Charlie Brown,” the document says, adding, “One can only imagine the stress this caused the children, especially the youngest, in attempting to maintain this elaborate lie.” 

Thomas’s fifth child was born in 1972, the biological son of Melfe, the complaint says, adding that the child had no idea who his father was until he was 8 or 9. 

Every night, when Melfe arrived home from the rectory, he would would pull into the driveway and Thomas would instruct one of the children to turn off the outdoor lights so he could “stealthily enter the garage using the automatic garage door opener,” the suit says. 

All the plaintiffs were made to suffer physical injury and pain and emotional trauma from Melfe’s “unspeakable atrocities,” the complaint says, and from “the abject failure” of the bishops and the diocese to “inquire, visit, inspect, supervise, monitor, instruct or manage in any way” Melfe’s activities. 

The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages including court costs. 

 

Diocesan ‘complicity’ 

The Albany Diocese knew of Melfe’s propensity for stealing from the church and abusing children since at least 1967, the complaint says, since he was transferred at that time from St. Joseph’s Church in Troy, for those reasons. 

In 1972, when one of the plaintiffs was 7, he accidentally told an adult neighbor who lived behind their house that his father was a priest, the complaint says and continues with this explanation: The neighbor then “repeatedly called” the bishop of the Albany Diocese to tell him a priest was living in the house behind his. The neighbor told his children not to play with the plaintiffs any more, and to stay away from the fence that separated their properties. 

The oldest child reports, in the complaint, having heard from his mother that the bishop — it does not specify which — called Melfe and told him about the phone calls and “told him to keep a lower profile.” As a result, after this, Melfe went to the oldest child’s football games wearing a ski mask, the complaint says. Harri told The Enterprise that the timing of this episode would suggest that the bishop referred to here was probably Howard Hubbard’s predecessor, Bishop Edwin Broderick.

In addition, the complaint says, the plaintiffs’ aunt wrote a letter to Bishop Hubbard telling him a priest was living in the family’s house. 

The mother told the oldest child that Bishop Hubbard called Melfe and told him about that letter and that Melfe retaliated by reporting the aunt’s husband — the children’s uncle — to the Unemployment Compensation Board, telling them that he was selling jewelry at flea markets while collecting unemployment benefits, the suit says. The uncle then lost those benefits, the complaint says. 

That uncle repeatedly asked the priest why he was sleeping with his own biological son and was “told to mind his own business,” the complaint says. 

In 1985, one of the plaintiffs and his girlfriend attended a basketball game with Melfe, and Bishop Hubbard sat in front of them at the game. Throughout the game, Hubbard and Melfe “talked as close friends,” the complaint says. 

In 1993, a cousin of the plaintiffs went to see Hubbard to tell him the priest was still living in the Guilderland house, and that his son was also living there, the complaint says. The plaintiffs understand that Hubbard asked her “whether anything had happened specifically to her, and when she said no, he dismissed her,” the suit says. 

The plaintiffs believe that Hubbard and his predecessor, Bishop Broderick, “were aware that Father Melfe was living in the house with the family, but chose to remain silent and allowed this abhorrent situation to continue.” 

Over the entire decade, Melfe was “continuously absent overnight from the living quarters of the rectory at the churches,” the complaint says, and his supervisors, Hubbard and Broderick, were “grossly negligent in their oversight and supervision” of him, the suit says.

This lack of supervision or consequences enabled the priest to hold “this family hostage for his own perverse pleasure as a pedophile,” the complaint says. 

 

Abuse

Beginning in 1970, the complaint says, Melfe taught the two youngest children — a boy who was 3 and a girl who was 5 — to make him vodka martinis, dry with one olive, when he arrived home in the evening. 

He would then have those two children sit on his lap and encourage them to sip from the drink and eat the alcohol-soaked olives; he would also give them beer, the suit says. Meanwhile, he would put his hand down their pants and molest their bottoms, it says. At one point he did this in front of Thomas’s mother, the children’s grandmother, who told him to stop; he replied, “I like their bottoms,” the complaint says. 

Melfe “openly touched the breasts” of the two girls in the family, “as well as other parts of their bodies,” in front of Thomas, their mother, the complaint says. 

Throughout their life at the home in Guilderland, he would “violently suck the necks” of all five children, “giving them visible hickeys.” Once, when one of the girls was in third grade at the St. Madeleine Sophie School, the nurse called Thomas to come and get her, because she had hickeys on her neck. “The nun told the mother to take her home and put band aids on them,” the complaint says, “but presumably reported this clear indication of abuse to no one.” 

Every night, for 10 years, the complaint says, Melfe moved between the bedrooms of the two girls, molesting and sometimes raping each of them.

Once, when a plaintiff was 8 and alone in the house with Melfe, he picked her up and carried her to his bedroom, “telling her that tonight she would be the Mommy,” and sexually assaulted her, the complaint says. 

This same plaintiff, at age 10, told her mother that Melfe was sexually assaulting her. 

Thomas made Melfe leave the home and brought the two girls to counseling with Dr. Qualtere, “which frightened them terribly because of his association with the defendant Father Melfe,” the complaint said. 

The mother allowed Melfe to return a few months later. 

After his return, in 1974, when the same girl was still 10 and they were alone in the home, he repeated that sexual assault, the complaint says, this time saying to her, “‘Why are you seducing me?’” 

After this assault, Melfe begged that plaintiff not to tell her mother, “and a fight ensued between the two,” the complaint says, adding that she “feared for her safety, and felt that the defendant Father Melfe was going to kill her.” 

He promised he would give her anything she wanted as long as she didn’t tell anyone; she asked to go to Florida to visit a friend, the complaint says. He sent her there, even though she was in school at the time; this resulted in her having a long absence from school, the suit says. 

Melfe continued to take showers with his biological son when the boy was 10, which disturbed the family’s oldest boy, who would fight with his mother about it, the complaint says.

The plaintiffs believe that a neighbor witnessed Melfe sexually abusing his own son, when the boy was a young child, in the car while they were on an outing, the suit says.

Melfe, in his underwear, wrestled with each of his sons, both in bed and on the living room floor, molesting them while holding them down with his body to the point where they were terrified and felt they were being suffocated, the complaint says, and he also sucked on their necks during these times, causing hickeys. 

During one of these incidents, the youngest child remembers his mother saying repeatedly, “Frank, that is enough,” the suit says. 

Melfe brought the children on trips to New York City, Canada, and the Virgin Islands, where he continued his sexual offenses against them, the complaint says.

Other allegations in the suit say that Melfe was physically abusive to pets in the home; that he had pornography in the house that was “open and obvious to all the plaintiff children”; that he had literature from NAMBLA (the North AmericaN Man/Boy Love Association, which contained the slogan, “Sex Before Eight or Else It’s Too Late”; and that he was a habitual masturbator and the plaintiff children could hear him from outside the bathroom door. 

More Guilderland News

  • “The aging population is increasing,” says Joel Edwards, a founder of Community Caregivers. “There is a socio-economic stress of, often, both adults working. And our families aren’t near. We need volunteers. We always need more volunteers.”

  • After deciding to put off making a decision until after the holidays, the Altamont Zoning Board of Appeals will hold a public hearing on Feb. 11 for Stewart’s Shops variance requests for its proposed Altamont Boulevard project.

  • The grassroots organizations Guilderland Coalition for Responsible Growth, Save the Pine Bush, and the Rapp Road Historical Association have launched a GoFundMe drive to fund hiring their own, independent scientists to evaluate any studies provided by Pyramid in its DEIS. But as of Jan. 10, the group had raised just $2,925 of its $100,000 goal. 

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