|Plaintiffs in Livingston Monsignor Sex Abuse Case Tell Newark Archdiocese Their Story
By Bob Considine
July 10, 2011
NEWARK — Two brothers said they recently told a review board of the Newark Archdiocese that the Rev. John J. Laferrera sexually abused them as altar boys some 30 years ago. Another two brothers are expected to bring similar allegations to the board this month, according to their attorney.
Laferrera, monsignor of St. Philomena Roman Catholic Church in Livingston, announced last weekend he is taking a temporary leave from his post to combat allegations of sexual abuse by five men in a lawsuit filed March 1. He adamantly denies the allegation.
Newark residents Samuel and Daniel Rivera, who are plaintiffs in the suit, said they delivered testimony to the Archdiocesan Review Board in Newark in separate meetings June 23.
"To tell these people you never met in your life these details is very tough, but they seemed to be very understanding," said Samuel Rivera, 45. "It seemed like they were really touched. I know we were crying, and I think the members of the board had teared up, too."
"It was very emotional," said Daniel Rivera, 41. "It's not something I like to talk about. But when we were done, I got the sense the board members seemed to believe what I was saying, or at least understand it."
Jim Goodness, spokesman for the Newark Archdiocese, confirmed that an inquiry is being conducted into the allegations. Goodness also said Laferrera, in taking leave, exercised an option that is available to all priests investigated for possible misconduct under the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002.
Greg Gianforcaro, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said two more brothers — Angel and Miquel Nieves of Orange — are scheduled to meet with the Archdiocesan Review Board this month. Both men, who are also part of the lawsuit, are expected to present claims similar to those of the Rivera brothers, Gianforcaro and Angel Nieves said.
The Riveras said they told the review board that Laferrera, now 64, sexually abused them while they were altar boys and he was pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Newark in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Samuel Rivera said he struggled to tell the board how Laferrera would force his head into his lap as he drove his car to a racquetball court in the late 1970s. He also told the group he believed he was drugged and raped by Laferrera while at a family home at the Jersey Shore.
Daniel Rivera choked up when recalling how he told the board of fondling and "inappropriate behavior" by Laferrera at the Shore house and at the rectory at Immaculate Conception.
"Being chosen to sleep in a room with some man when you're a 12-year-old child, it was very uncomfortable," he said. "But you know, he's the priest. He was like a father figure."
Angel Nieves said he is planning to tell the review board of how Laferrera would "do a lot of grabbing" and "stick his hands down my pants" when he was a 12-year-old altar boy. He said he required psychiatric treatment for the alleged abuse.
"I just hope justice gets done," said Nieves, 43.
Laferrera had not responded to multiple attempts for comment until Thursday, when he was met at his Jersey Shore home by a reporter and politely declined to speak, referring all questions to the Newark Archdiocese.
But at several Masses last weekend, other priests at St. Philomena read to parishioners a 600-word statement written by Laferrea and proclaiming his innocence.
"We all know that lawsuits take time and energy and they can drain you of your strength and resolve," Laferrera said. "Unfortunately, in today's climate, many in the public take any statement at face value, especially if it's lurid."
Laferrera was ordained in 1973 at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Newark. He ministered at Immaculate Conception for 14 years, before serving at St. Francis Xavier Church in Newark from 1987 to 1991. He joined St. Aloysius Church in Caldwell in 1992 and served two six-year terms as pastor, before joining St. Philomena in 2004.
Representatives from St. Philomena have declined to comment about Laferrera, as did a representative at St. Aloysius.
Laferrera does have his supporters.
Jo Trivino worked on the finance commission at St. Aloysius for four years while Laferrera was pastor and described a man who was dedicated to his faith, extremely kind and went beyond his call of duty — often conducting Masses at nursing homes — without seeking any extra attention for his efforts.
"This is a man who is so deeply moved by God," said Trivino, who has since moved from Caldwell to Ocean County. "If he wasn't a priest, he would have been a family man. Actually, the church was his family."
Several parishioners shook their head in disbelief as Laferrera's letter was first read by the Rev. Gerald Buonopane at the end of last Saturday's 5 p.m. Mass. Buonopane began to tear up when he finished reading.
"There's no proof he did anything," said Theresa Ciccone, a St. Philomena parishioner since 1991. "He has been a great priest for this church."
Trivino said she believes the men who are coming forward against Laferrera are opportunists trying to capitalize on a previous allegation of misconduct.
In 2009, Ernest Fabregas, formerly of Newark and now of Toms River, alleged he was abused by Laferrera to the Archdiocesan Review Board. But the board deemed his testimony to be not credible and Laferrera, ultimately, was named monsignor at St. Philomena.
"So now you have two sets of brothers who both were able to keep secrets for all of these years, and now, all of a sudden, they're coming forward?" Trivino asked. "It's just too difficult to believe, and it's too out of character for (Laferrera)."
Gianforcaro said he hoped Fabregas' testimony would be re-evaluated by the review board.
According to bishopaccountability.org, a website that documents abuse cases in the Roman Catholic Church, there have been 124 members of the clergy in New Jersey's five dioceses that have been accused of misconduct, dating to the 1950s.
Some 48 of those accusations in the state have come after the 2002 sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston.
Goodness said abuse complaints are first heard by a subcommittee. That group then determines whether a recommendation of further inquiry should be made to the full review board, which consists of 14 people. Goodness said that group includes attorneys, criminal investigators, clergy, canon lawyers, social workers and other lay people.
The information they receive is also handed over to authorities, although, in Laferrera's and other cases, the accusations are beyond the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution.
Once the information is received, Goodness said, the accusers are offered therapy at the Archdiocesan expense while the investigatory process continues.
"The process we employ has been in place since 1993 and it is time-tested," he said. "It does operate with the presumption of open-mindedness and the members of the review board do a very thorough and comprehensive inquiry on behalf of the church, keeping in mind that we have to look to the needs of the individual making the allegation."
The Rev. Bob Hoatson, who heads Road to Recovery, an advocacy group for abuse victims of the church, said nine men have come forward to him to say they were sexually abused or incurred some kind of misconduct by Laferrera.
Not all of them are part of the lawsuit. Robert Willette of Morristown said on several occasions when he was 11 and 12, Laferrera would sit him on his lap and the priest would stick his hand up his shirt and pinch his nipples. He said he also said he saw similar "brazen" actions happen to another altar boy at Immaculate Conception.
But Willette said he has no interest in joining a lawsuit.
"As far as I know, I didn't suffer any externally obvious emotional or psychological issues," said Willette, 44. "For me, it's just letting people know what I know to be the truth. People can make their own decisions. I'm here to say, it happened to me."
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