Allentown Diocese Failed to Protect Victim from Decades of Abuse, New Jersey Lawsuit Claims
By Peter Hall
March 31, 2020
An Allentown Diocese priest raped a victim when he was an altar boy and continued assaulting him for decades after the priest became known to diocese officials as a pedophile, a lawsuit filed in New Jersey alleges.
The suit claims the Rev. Robert G. Cofenas began abusing the victim, who is identified by the pseudonym John Doe, when he was a 7-year-old altar boy at Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church in Reading. The abuse continued until the victim was in his 30s.
The suit alleges Cofenas identified the victim to other priests as a source of sexual gratification and names two who also allegedly assaulted the victim, including an Allentown Diocese priest who has never been publicly accused.
Cofenas was first identified as an accused priest in the statewide grand jury report on abuse in the church, released in August 2018. The report, produced after a two-year grand jury investigation, identified more than 300 Pennsylvania clergy in six dioceses, including Allentown, as abusers.
Until then, the victim was unaware that church officials knew about Cofenas’ misconduct, the lawsuit says. The grand jury report said church officials were aware of Cofenas’ inappropriate contact with a boy in 1979. It also said Cofenas admitted sexually abusing boys in 1981 and 1986, but church officials tried to keep his actions from becoming public as recently as 2004.
“I think the grand jury report was an eye opening experience for many people in the extent to which the church was aware and covered it up and failed to stop them,” said attorney David McComb, who represents the victim.
He is now 56 and lives in the Harrisburg area. The suit says that as a result of the abuse, he suffers severe and pervasive psychological problems that have led him to see his life as “an abject failure.”
The last assault happened in the late 1990s or early 2000s, the suit alleges.
In addition to the grand jury’s findings, the lawsuit claims Cofenas was expelled from St. Charles of Borremeo Theological Seminary in Montgomery County for inappropriate sexual activity. It alleges the Philadelphia Archdiocese, where the seminary is located, failed to warn others about Cofenas.
The suit also says the victim wrote to Pope Francis about his abuse and received a response from the Vatican, indicating that the church was aware of accusations against Cofenas at its highest levels.
Cofenas was removed from priesthood in 2005 and died in 2013. His file was provided to law enforcement in 2002, a diocese spokesman said.
The suit also claims Cofenas gave the boy a medal that McComb said identified him to other priests as a silent victim. It identifies two former Allentown Diocese priests, the Rev. Stephen Halabura and the Rev. James Agosta, among those who also abused the victim.
Halabura retired in 2008 and self-reported an incident of abuse in 2019, which diocese officials referred to law enforcement. Agosta, who died in 1995, does not appear on the diocese’s list of credibly accused priests.
Diocese spokesman Matt Kerr said Agosta’s file was turned over to the state grand jury in 2016 because he had been the subject of a complaint. The complaint could not be investigated because it was made anonymously and Agosta was dead, Kerr said.
The diocese is reviewing the lawsuit. The Philadelphia Archdiocese, which is also named as a defendant, would not comment on the pending lawsuit, a spokesman said.
McComb said the suit was filed in Cape May County Court because a 2019 New Jersey law extended the time for victims of sexual abuse to file civil lawsuit and created a two-year period for those who were previously barred to sue.
It alleges Cofenas raped the victim several times when he accompanied Cofenas to Wildwood, New Jersey, as an 11-year-old on a weeklong vacation where Cofenas performed Mass at area churches. The victim was an altar boy during the services, the suit says.
The suit summarizes findings of the statewide grand jury that Cofenas’ misconduct was first reported to the Allentown Diocese in 1979 when he was assigned to the Newman Center at Lehigh University.
The grand jury report cited a 2004 report to the Vatican by Bishop Edward Cullen, then head of the Allentown Diocese, admitting that the diocese knew of Cofenas’ inappropriate relationship with a boy in 1979, that Cofenas had admitted abusing the victim in 1986, and warning that the victim’s family was threatening to go to the media if Cofenas was not removed.
The lawsuit seeks $50 million in damages.