Loretto friary denies verbal abuse, discrimination claims from aides

St. Francis Friary of Loretto has denied that it retaliated last year by firing two nurse aides at its residence for friars after the women complained about a “hostile work environment” in which they were allegedly subjected to verbal and physical harassment.

The aides, Joyce Benzinger of Denton, Md., and Melissa Doughty of Cresson, filed a civil rights lawsuit on May 25 in the U.S. District Court in Johnstown complaining that at least one brother, who they stated was their superior, frequently swore at them and called them “stupid” and “worthless.”

When they complained to the friar in charge, circumstances didn’t change, and after repeated complaints, they were fired, according to the lawsuit filed by Pittsburgh attorney Benjamin J. Gobel.

The aides filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Title VII of the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act and received notices of the rights to sue earlier this year.

They filed their lawsuits within the 90-day window granted by the EEOC.

St. Francis Friary, Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Franciscan Third Order Regular, and the Third Order Regular of St. Francis, are listed as the defendants.

The defendants have now answered the lawsuits.

Attorney David J. Rosenberg of Pittsburgh denies the aides were discriminated against on the basis of their sex and through the creation of a hostile work environment and due to retaliation.

To the contrary, the answers state, the women were employees “at will,” who were discharged for non-discriminatory reasons.

Benzinger and Doughty during the early stages of their employment may have received kudos for the jobs they did, but, the friary responded in closer proximity to their terminations, the aides “engaged in a course of conduct that was directly contrary to the goals and expectations of the friary.”

The legal documents filed by the defense say the aides were abusive to other nurses and to their direct supervisor, Donna Shank; that they violated policies and procedure of the province; and exhibited insubordination to Shank and the friars.

While the friary answer admitted that one of the friars “may have used profane language,” it was denied that it was done in a way that would constitute harassment on an ongoing basis.

The friary also denied that the friar in question pushed and physically intimidated the aides, that he subjected other female members of the nursing staff to such treatment and that his conduct was “frequent, severe and pervasive.”

When the aides complained to the friar in charge, James Morman, they contended he did not address the issues with the friar, but in the response to the complaint, the friary stated Morman spoke to the offending friar and took corrective action.

Morman, it was stated, also told the women that, if they had further complaints, they should come to him.

When the aides continued to complain about the harassment, they stated in their complaint that Morman suggested they pray over the matter.

The answer to the complaint admitted this was said.

The answer stated, “considering the friary is a placed of worship and home to friars, it is common advice that (Morman) gives to people he ministers in dealing with problems.”

He denied that he eventually told the aides “to just deal with it.”

Both aides were terminated in May 2017, Doughty after 10 years and Benzinger after five years with the friary.