Sisters Tell Grand Jury of Priest Abuse

By Rita Ciolli
July 2, 2002

Donna Nichols and her younger sister Darlene LoSordo told a grand jury yesterday how they were repeatedly abused as teenage girls by the same Roman Catholic priest at a Huntington Station parish more than 30 years ago.

[Photo caption: Donna Nichols of East Northport, photo by Jim Peppler.]

While the former priest cannot face criminal prosecution, Nichols, 48, of East Northport, said testifying gave her a sense of freedom. "I feel now that there is hope for victims," she said. "The grand jury is a door opening for us. We have been caged birds for so long and now we can spread our wings and fly."

"The truth had not been told before," added LoSordo, 46, of St. James. "Once it is, the legal system can do what it should do."

The two women spoke after leaving the Suffolk County district attorney's office in Hauppauge. Both said the experience of testifying about their relentless abuse, which began around age 12, was difficult and draining.

The sisters are among dozens of victims and family members who have testified in the past two months before a special Suffolk County grand jury investigating whether the hierarchy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre obstructed justice or covered up sexual abuse cases.

The former priest, Nicholas Unterstein, can't be criminally prosecuted for raping the sisters because so much time has passed. And the diocese can't be made financially liable for his actions.

But the question of whether the diocese can still be held responsible for how it handled the abuse cases after they were reported remains open, said attorney John Aretakis of Manhattan, who is representing both sisters.

Nichols quietly received a civil settlement in 2000 after several years of battling the diocese in court. But her sister, who just recently came forward, was told by the diocese this spring - after the issue of sexual abuse by priests had become a national scandal - that no more settlements would be made.

Aretakis said that if the grand jury finds fraud, then the diocese could be held legally responsible for an abuse claim, even though the statute of limitations has expired. "My clients were asked questions pointing to a continuing pattern by the diocese of Rockville Centre of getting complaints, moving the priests and engaging in some kind of conspiracy to make the victims go away and protect the priests," he said.

Unterstein, now 70 and living in Oceanside, was transferred from St. Hugh of Lincoln in Huntington Station to parishes in Islip and Hempstead before he was defrocked in 1980. Unterstein has an unlisted telephone number and could not be reached.

Two years ago, a State Supreme Court justice dismissed the abuse claims brought by Nichols as being too old, but allowed the case to go forward because a priest in a neighboring parish, whom Nichols had told of the abuse, improperly disclosed it in a letter.

At that point, Nichols was offered a small settlement that she said she refused.

Infuriated, she said she then tracked down Msgr. Alan Placa, who was handling abuse cases for the diocese at that time. "I was yelling and yelling that what they were offering me was absurd. I told them to tell him I was going to the media," Nichols said last week. Within days, she said, Placa called Aretakis and quadrupled the settlement amount, which she declined to disclose, except to say it was six figures.

"They didn't negotiate on the abuse," she said. "They negotiated on the threat of it getting out to the general public."

Joanne Navarro, the diocesan spokeswoman, said yesterday that the Nichols case was settled "to pay for her counseling." However, she said she "can't confirm or deny" Nichols' statement that the settlement was increased after she threatened to go to the media, and Placa was available for comment.

Placa, whose abilities to act as a priest have been suspended by the diocese, is on a leave of absence. The grand jury has heard testimony that Placa sexually abused students at a diocesan high school more than 20 years ago. The complaint against him resulted in the suspension of his ability to act as a priest, although he began his leave of absence prior to the complaint. Placa has denied all such charges.

LoSordo didn't come forward to ask the diocese for money until after the clerical abuse scandal in Boston attracted national attention. By then Bishop William Murphy, the new head of the diocese, had put in place a new policy saying that there would be no more cash settlements and that LoSordo had to go to court.

"This Diocese will not take the approach with victims that money can heal trauma or that money is a way to dismiss or, even worse, hide allegations of sexual abuse," Murphy wrote in a June letter to parish priests.

However, LoSordo doesn't think the diocese should wait to see what the grand jury does. "I would just hope they would just see to it to do the right thing," she said. "Come clean and stop hiding behind their own rules and the laws."



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