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  Behind the $5M Sex Abuse Settlement

By Abbott Koloff
Daily Record [Morristown NJ]
February 16, 2005

MORRISTOWN -- Some of the men had been together three years, ever since they held their first meeting in Mendham and talked about childhood memories that had been secret for decades. They told the world they had been sexually abused decades ago by their former pastor. They met with the bishop. They started a support group.

After one of them committed suicide, they put up a monument at their old church, a millstone that sits on the property of St. Joseph's parish.

On Tuesday they reached a milestone when they stood on the steps of the Morris County Courthouse and announced the formal settlement of a lawsuit against the Paterson Roman Catholic Diocese. The suit had been settled earlier in the month and the settlement amount, an estimated $5 million split among 27 people, had been reported by plaintiffs last week.

Most of the plaintiffs said they were abused by James Hanley, a former St. Joseph's pastor, although some had been abused by other priests and a deacon.

To settle their lawsuits against the diocese and its former leader, Bishop Frank Rodimer, they received monetary awards with most ranging between $100,000 and $200,000. They also will receive four years of paid therapy, and have an option of having a one-on-one meeting with Bishop Arthur Serratelli, who took over from Rodimer last summer.

Bill Crane Jr., 39, a former Mendham resident now living in Oregon, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that the settlement was a big step in his life, the start of a transition to having some peace following years of fighting church officials.

"I feel that collectively we have brought attention to this problem and created a safer environment for children," Crane said. "We had a sense of unity. Look at all the disclosures this group provided over the last three years."

Still, some plaintiffs said they wanted more out of the settlement. They wanted the diocese to open its personnel records -- something that has taken place in only a handful of dioceses around the country in response to lawsuits. They wanted a chance to review the files to determine whether priests who abused them had other allegations against them -- and to determine what diocese officials knew about those priests.

Greg Gianforcaro, an attorney for 26 of the plaintiffs, said he asked Serratelli to open personnel files, but the request was declined. He acknowledged on Tuesday that there was a danger in pressing too hard, since it wasn't clear whether every one of his clients would have passed the legal test required to go to trial. They would have been required to prove they had repressed memories of sexual abuse. Some of them might have been left behind.

"I can't predict what would have happened if we had not settled," Gianforcaro said. "My whole reason to get this (settlement) was to help everyone, not just some."

Serratelli was not available for comment, but issued a statement in which he said: "I hope this will bring closure for all involved to a long and painful experience for our Church. We look forward to reconciliation and healing."

Spoke for itself

Marianna Thompson, the bishop's spokeswoman, said the statement spoke for itself, although she added that the idea of opening up priests' personnel records had been "on the table" early in discussions that led to the settlement but then had been removed from consideration "by mutual agreement."

Even some plaintiffs who wanted those records open said they were not sure what would have been found. They said it wasn't clear that fighting for those records, and potentially having some of them dropped from the lawsuit, would have been worth it.

"I would have wanted the files disclosed," said Johnny Vega of Wallington, who said he was abused as a child in the 1970s by the late Jose Alonso, a Paterson priest who spent time in prison for sexually abusing children. "But we don't even know if those files exist. We don't know whether they have been destroyed."

Vega showed up at Tuesday's press conference holding a pair of boots -- symbolic reference to a remark made by a Paterson diocese attorney that suggested victims of priest abuse should just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps instead of seeking legal restitution. Vega said he intended to bring the boots to his anticipated meeting with Serratelli. He was one of several abuse victims attending Tuesday's press conference.

Ray Skettini, 48, a Vernon resident, said he was abused by Hanley in the late 1960s at Good Counsel parish in Pequannock. Skettini said he was in such denial about being abused by Hanley, who taught him to play the guitar, that he asked the priest to perform his marriage ceremony years later. He said he would like to have a look at Hanley's personnel files because he often wonders whether anyone had concerns about the priest in the 1960s or 1970s.

"I don't know that I got all the answers I wanted," Skettini said.

He added that he wasn't sure that all of the facts would have come out in court had the lawsuit gone to trial, and he wasn't sure what kind of information would have been found in Hanley's files. He and other plaintiffs pointed out that, at least in Hanley's case, they might know everything there is to know -- especially since Hanley gave plaintiffs a sworn statement to support their case against the diocese.

Confidentiality

Skettini said he believed he was Hanley's lone victim until 2002 -- when Mark Serrano, who settled a lawsuit with the diocese years before, broke a confidentiality agreement to say he had been abused by Hanley as a child in Mendham. Serrano had gone to Rodimer with his allegations in 1985.

Rodimer, now living in Rockaway Township, has acknowledged that he allowed Hanley to work for a year in Passaic County after being told about allegations against the priest. The bishop has acknowledged that he later sent Hanley to work in an Albany, N.Y., hospital. Hanley has said in a sworn statement that when he told Rodimer the allegations were true, the bishop responded by saying he was not the only diocesan priest who had abused children. Hanley was formally removed from the priesthood two years ago.

Serrano, now a nationally-known victim's advocate, has been critical of diocese officials for declining to open up their personnel records.

"The victims needed to reach a conclusion," Serrano said Tuesday. "I support them in that. But what on earth could Bishop Serratelli still be hiding in Father Hanley's personnel file?"

Crane said that he does not believe that the settlement falls short in any way. Had plaintiffs pushed harder, he said, there might have been "casualties" -- meaning some plaintiffs would not have survived defense challenges. He also said it was important to come to a conclusion.

"It's kind of neat to be in a position of transition," Crane said. "This thing has consumed me my whole life. This settlement speaks volumes about what we have accomplished over the last three years. Look at all the church disclosures this group has helped provide. The doors are open much wider now."

 
 

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