Clergy Sex Abuse a Top Issue Facing New Paterson Bishop

By Wayne Parry
Associated Press, carried in Newsday
June 5, 2004

PATERSON, N.J. -- As he stood inside the ornate Cathedral of St. John The Baptist watching the introduction of a new bishop, Johnny Vega felt a chill that had nothing to do with spirituality.

It was the first time he had set foot inside the cathedral since being sexually abused there by a priest when he was an 11-year-old altar boy, he said.

"Being the place of my desecration as a child victim, I could not help but note the irony of a press conference being held there announcing the new bishop," said Vega, a member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The group wants the incoming bishop, the Most Rev. Arthur J. Serratelli to meet with its members as his first official act after being installed next month.

The Roman Catholic Church has many challenges in America: declining vocations, financial pressures forcing the merger or closure of many parishes and schools, and aggressive efforts by other denominations to convert Catholics to other religions.

But few issues have more emotional impact, or a higher profile, than the clergy sex abuse scandal that has rocked the church in America and in the Diocese of Paterson, where more than 20 men accuse a former priest of molesting them when they were young.

It is something Serratelli will have to deal with when he takes over leadership of the 111 parishes in Passaic, Morris and Sussex counties.

At Tuesday's press conference, Serratelli said he is committed to addressing the issue of clergy sex abuse, promising to "look for healing and reconciliation any way you can."

"We want to take this opportunity to let him demonstrate his commitment to that statement," said David Cerulli, an abuse network board member who was abused as a 14-year-old altar boy in Allentown, Pa.

On Thursday, the support group tried to deliver a letter to Serratelli, who remains an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Newark until his installation July 6. But Serratelli wasn't at his Newark office; he was attending a funeral, said his spokesman Jim Goodness, who accepted the letter on Serratelli's behalf.

The letter welcomed the incoming bishop to his new position and offered to work with him to address the needs of clergy abuse victims. The letter requested, among other things, that the diocese publicly name priests and other religious "credibly accused" of child molestation, and that it settle lawsuits brought on behalf of such victims instead of fighting them in court.

Patricia Serrano, whose son, Mark, was one of the first in the nation to break a confidentiality agreement he signed with the church and publicly speak out about abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest in Mendham, offered several gifts to Serratelli, including a pink cyclamen houseplant with heart-shaped leaves.

"This is a plant that requires a great deal of regular sunlight," she told Goodness outside Sacred Heart Cathedral in Newark. "We offer this plant as a reminder to Bishop Serratelli of the commitment of all bishops to operate with transparency and openness."

Goodness said the bishop had not committed to meeting with the group, but said he would convey the group's request to him. But Serratelli is well aware of the need to deal with the subject, Goodness said.

"The issue of sex abuse is one of the most important issues facing us in the church today," he said. "The bishop is extremely sensitive to the needs of everyone _ priests, religious, the laity. He will certainly be giving it a high priority once he takes possession of the diocese in July."

Serratelli will succeed Bishop Frank Rodimer, who clergy abuse victims fault for his handling of Rev. James Hanley, the subject of most of the abuse allegations in the diocese. Rodimer said he waited 10 months to remove Hanley after the allegations were made public in the mid-1980s because he thought treatment for alcoholism would help end Hanley's alleged abuse.

Hanley requested to be defrocked in 2002, a process known in the church as voluntary laicization, and the Vatican granted his request. He has not been criminally prosecuted; authorities said the statute of limitations has expired for the incidents of which he is accused.

Cerulli said his own abuse came at the hands of a trusted parish priest who had first befriended his parents.

"He would take me on day trips, and bought me expensive gifts like a road racer set, which was so large that it had to be set up in my basement," he said. "He would come over ostensibly to race cars with me, and then would abuse me in my own basement."

When Cerulli protested, the priest, who died in 1996, turned the tables on him, he said.

"He would say, 'David, you wanted this. This is your doing. If you tell anyone, I'll say you're lying. I'm a priest and you're just a kid."'

The psychological damage was great. Cerulli is on his third marriage, has suffered a nervous breakdown, and once came close to committing suicide, he said. He sued the Diocese of Allentown in 1989 and settled two years later, signing the same type of confidentiality agreement that Serrano broke.

Cerulli decided to break his pact as well in 2002.

"I decided I couldn't become complicit with the secrecy and the lying," he said. "As long as I was silent, I was as guilty as anybody."


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