Diocese Transferred Priest
By Rita Ciolli
The Diocese of Rockville Centre will pay tens of thousands of dollars to a Florida man who said he was molested by Matthew Fitzgerald, a priest who was quietly transferred in 1989 from Long Island to Palm Beach after allegations were made that he sexually abused boys at Roman Catholic parishes here.
As part of a settlement, Bishop William Murphy will write a letter of apology to the abuse victim for the actions of the diocese, which was then headed by the late Bishop John McGann. McGann authorized the transfer, claiming the priest needed to go south because of allergy problems, said Andrew Pelino, attorney for the Florida plaintiff. Rockville Centre, the Diocese of Palm Beach and Fitzgerald each reached separate settlements with the plaintiff on Thursday.
Pelino said his client was 15 when he was molested by Fitzgerald from 1991 to 1992 at his Florida home when the priest would visit the boy's devout parents. The teenager sought advice from Fitzgerald after he was touched sexually by a teacher at his Catholic middle school.
Pelino, who described the case as emotionally charged and hard fought by the two dioceses, said his client, now 28, brought the lawsuit to "hold church leaders accountable."
Pelino said the apology letter was his suggestion because of the crisis in faith suffered by his client. "I commend Bishop Murphy for having the courage to do something like this," he said.
The Dioceses of Rockville Centre and Palm Beach will both pay the settlement, which Pelino described as "substantially more than $100,000." He said his client did not want the exact amount disclosed but said there was no confidentiality agreement in the case and that either diocese was free to disclose the amount.
Douglas Jeffrey, a Miami lawyer who represented the Long Island diocese, confirmed the settlement but declined to provide details. Sean Dolan, a spokesman for Murphy, also declined to specify the exact amount.
Jim Brosemer, a spokesman for the Palm Beach diocese, said Fitzgerald was defrocked by the Vatican in 2002. The former priest, who was born and ordained in Ireland, now lives in Pompano Beach and works in a supermarket, according to a law enforcement source. Fitzgerald, who in the past has denied any wrongdoing, was not available for comment. "He has gone away for a few weeks," said someone with an Irish accent who answered the telephone at his home on Friday. Fitzgerald's attorney, Stephen Muffler of Fort Lauderdale, declined to comment on the settlement.
Fitzgerald, 64, came to Long Island in 1970 and served at St. Hedwig's in Floral Park and St. Pius in Plainview. In the mid-1980s, a teen accused Fitzgerald of molesting him while at St. Brigid's in Westbury. Fitzgerald was then sent to St. Matthew in Dix Hills and then to St. Patrick in Smithtown before the Florida assignment. Fitzgerald was never prosecuted.
A 2003 Suffolk grand jury report that investigated the handling of clergy abuse cases cited Fitzgerald's as that of "Priest B." The report said he fondled altar boys as they prepared for Mass, in a sauna at a health club, and during play "wrestling" in his rectory bedroom.
Pelino said the Suffolk grand jury report "was extremely helpful because it laid out all the prior allegations against Fitzgerald before he went to Palm Beach ..."
On Friday, one of two Long Island men who testified before the grand jury that he was molested by Fitzgerald called the settlement a vindication. "I feel sad that there were victims before me and I am saddened that there were victims after I told the diocese what happened but this is a vindication of the truth of my story," said the Nassau resident, who asked not to be named.
His attorney, Michael Dowd, said the settlement has little legal significance for the local cases but did raise a broader issue. "How can the Rockville Centre diocese settle cases in Florida involving the criminal acts of Father Fitzgerald and refuse to settle cases in their own diocese for the criminal acts of Father Fitzgerald? It is morally indefensible," Dowd said.
Citing the long-standing policy of the diocese, Dolan declined to discuss pending litigation.
GRAPHIC: Photo - Matthew Fitzgerald
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