Priest Sues Man Who Accused Him of Abuse
NYC Cleric Says Kinnelon Resident Attacked His Good Name
By Abbott Koloff
February 15, 2004
Daniel O'Dougherty Jr. said he only recently got up enough courage to tell his parents that he had been abused by a priest as a child. He held a news conference last month to make the accusations public, saying he decided to talk about the alleged abuse only after reading that a Morris County man who claimed to have been abused by a priest recently committed suicide.
A couple of weeks later, O'Dougherty, 29, of Kinnelon, was the subject of a lawsuit filed by the man he accused.
Thomas J. Gaffney, a Staten Island priest, filed a defamation of character lawsuit against O'Dougherty in New York at the end of last month, his attorney said last week.
Stephen "Skippy" Weinstein, Gaffney's Morristown attorney, said his client is merely protecting his good name. He said Gaffney, 80, has been a priest for 54 years without any other allegations against him. He said his client has been suffering from nervous problems and has required counseling from other priests since the story was made public.
"This lawsuit shows the people who know him that this couldn't have happened," Weinstein said. "Let a jury decide."
Victims' advocates estimate that this is one of about a dozen similar defamation lawsuits filed by priests against accusers nationwide over the past couple of years -- a small number considering that hundreds of priests have been accused of abuse over that period.
But victims' advocates also say they are worried about what might happen if such lawsuits become more popular. They say it might prevent victims, many of them already in a fragile psychological state, from coming forward.
Bruce Nagel, O'Dougherty's Livingston attorney, has said he's been in contact with another man who has similar charges to make against Gaffney. However, he has not given any details about the second accuser, and he has not revealed the man's identity to church officials. And while he said he has made his client available to be interviewed by church officials, he said they refused because he made certain demands.
He wants the right to tell his client not to answer certain questions, and he does not want the interview recorded.
Church officials acknowledge that they refused to accept those stipulations. They have said they don't consider the allegations credible because they haven't had a chance to talk to the accuser. So while a nationwide bishops' agreement, known as the Dallas Charter, requires priests to be removed from their duties pending investigations of credible allegations, church officials say they have no reason to remove Gaffney from his position as pastor of St. Charles church on Staten Island.
They also said last week that they did not encourage Gaffney to file a lawsuit. However, they did say that Gaffney told them he planned to file it.
"He is a citizen of this country with all the rights that any citizen has," said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for Cardinal Edward Egan, head of the New York Archdiocese
Victims' advocates say it's unlikely that Gaffney would have filed such a suit without at least a tacit approval from church officials. They say archdiocese officials appear to be trying to distance themselves from the suit, at least publicly, because to do otherwise might be considered poor public relations.
Monsignor Kenneth Lasch, pastor of St. Joseph parish in Mendham, a canon lawyer and victims' advocate, said priests are supposed to get permission for such actions from bishops but don't always bother to do so. However, he also said that church officials could have stopped Gaffney from filing the suit. With many priests upset about what they consider to be limited recourse following an accusation, he said there could be more lawsuits against accusers.
"It's called backlash," he said.
But Lasch and other victims' advocates say such suits often become another way for alleged abusers to re-victimize their accusers.
John Bambrick, a priest from Manalapan, was sued two years ago under canon law by another priest he accused of abusing him years before. The other priest already had been suspended from functioning as a priest because church officials deemed the allegations to be credible.
A bishop dismissed the suit two years ago and the other priest remains suspended pending a decision from Rome about whether he should receive further punishment.
"I saw it as an act of intimidation and trying to silence me," Bambrick said of the suit, which would have been heard by a church tribunal "That, of course, is what abuse is about. I was determined that I would not be that abused child anymore. ... I think lawsuits will be intimidating to some people and will have a chilling effect. I think they will push people who already are deeply troubled to stay silent."
Bambrick's case apparently was the only one of its kind filed under canon law. In fact, he said, it was the first of its kind filed in more than 500 years. The rest of the lawsuits filed over the past couple of years have been civil suits in secular courts, most of them pending.
Even priests' advocates say such suits create a dilemma because priests who file them come off as aggressive and lacking compassion.
"The priest is seen as an aggressor instead an institution of mercy and compassion," said Joe Maher, who runs a group called Opus Bono Sacerdotii (Latin for Work for the Good of the Priesthood), which helps priests accused of abuse, sometimes paying for civil attorneys. "But so many of these priests feel victimized. They feel the only way to get back their good name is to sue the accusers. ... We advise them that litigation is a last resort."
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