|Sources: Diocese Paid $3.2 Million to Settle Sex Suits / the Abuse, Said the South Jersey Accusers, Was Unspeakable. Fifteen Were Told to Keep It That Way
By Maureen Graham
January 11, 1994
Stephen Palo, 31, hesitated before opening the folder that held copies of $50,000 in checks from the Catholic Diocese of Camden.
He was faced with a trying decision. For more than a decade, he had been suffering in what he called a "living hell" that began when he was a youth and a priest performed oral sex on him. He said the sexual relationship had continued for 15 years.
In October the church had given Palo's family $50,000 to settle their claim against the priest. Still, Palo was torn. In accepting the money, he had signed an agreement barring him from ever talking about his case. If he talked, he'd have to return the money.
What angered him, Palo said, was what he saw as the church's desire to silence him - and others like him.
Palo is breaking the secrecy agreement.
"No matter how much money I get, no matter how much money the other victims get, the church is continually allowing the abuse to go on because they are paying us to be quiet," said Palo, wiping beads of perspiration from his forehead. "I don't want an innocent child to go through 20 years of hell like I did. Why doesn't the church put a stop to it?"
Palo was one of 15 people involved in a settlement with the Camden Diocese in October. There was little publicity about the settlement - and what information did emerge was incomplete or, worse, wrong. The court record was so ambiguous that some news accounts made it appear that one of the cases against the diocese had been dropped. Other accounts said three individuals had settled lawsuits against the church, for an undisclosed amount.
In fact, Palo and the 14 other complainants were paid a total of $1.8 million.
According to sources familiar with church bank records, the Camden Diocese has paid at least $3.2 million to 19 men and women since 1990. The church paid the money after hearing detailed complaints of sexual abuse against nine priests.
In the settlements totaling $1.8 million, the church agreed to pay only if no one involved talked publicly about the cases.
At the time, diocesan lawyer Martin McKernan would say only that "all differences have been resolved." He would not comment on any other cases, and would not discuss how much money, in all, the diocese had paid.
"What is a confidentiality agreement if someone talks?" the Rev. Carl J. Marucci, spokesman for the Camden Diocese, said in a recent interview. He said the diocese would have no further comment.
The two-page secrecy agreement in the October settlement was specific. It said that for anyone involved who was questioned, the only acceptable answer was: "Such differences as might have existed . . . have been resolved."
Bishop James McHugh of Camden declined to be interviewed for this article. Other Camden Diocese officials did not return phone calls to their offices.
According to the confidentiality agreement, the settlement is not intended "to be an admission of any liability of any kind."
The settlements in Camden are part of a growing pattern of payouts by Roman Catholic dioceses throughout the nation. Stephen C. Rubino, a lawyer who represented many of the complainants in the Camden case, estimates that as much as $500 million has been spent to settle sexual abuse cases across the country. Rubino is chairman of the sexual abuse litigation unit of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. He declined to discuss the details of any individual case.
For some families, the settlements were not the end of the matter.
"To this day I cannot attend a Catholic service and see the priests without getting upset," said Mary McCracken, whose parish priest was convicted and jailed for sexually abusing her 12-year-old son. Her family was one of the 19 that received money from the diocese.
Lucy Palo said her son's sexual experiences with a priest changed the way she worships. "I don't listen to the hype - the 'do as I say, not as I do' stuff. I worship my God my own way," she said. "I don't even look at the priest."
According to sources familiar with the October settlements, the diocese agreed to the $1.8 million in payouts after reviewing the cases individually.
The church issued checks drawn on the "Bishop's Resource Account," held at MidAtlantic Bank in Collingswood. The checks, numbered 158 through 174, were handwritten and signed by William Murray. The checks were in amounts ranging from $10,000 to $513,000. Two other checks, totaling $400,000, were drawn from the church's revolving fund at First Fidelity Bank.
Murray, a member of the Diocesan Finance Committee, did not return phone calls.
One of the settled cases involved the Rev. Gary Hayes, who along with two others sued the Camden Diocese in 1993, claiming the Rev. Joseph McGarvey has
sexually abused them. Father Hayes, Steven M. Stolar and Terrence Smith were paid a total of $374,000 by the diocese. Father McGarvey, who is on a leave of absence, declined to comment.
The Diocese of Camden paid about $20,000 for psychological counseling for sex abuse complainants last year. Amber Samaroo, the psychologist who did most of the counseling, said in an interview that those victimized by a priest have a harder time understanding the sexual abuse than other victims do.
"To them, it is as if they were having sex with God," Samaroo said. "It's a feeling these kids talk about all the time. To them, it's a tremendous sense of privilege, and they buy into that. Then, somewhere along the line they realize it's twisted."
Coming forward with details of abuse is difficult for many victims, Samaroo said, primarily because they often feel they are betraying their priest.
"There is guilt for turning in the priest," he said. "After all, they tell me, this person has been very good to him. This is the guy who took them camping, who taught them boating, who has been good to them for all these years."
Samaroo said he had not counseled any priests in New Jersey. He said he had counseled priests in Philadelphia.
Samaroo said sexual aberrations he had seen in priests generally were "not something that started when they entered the priesthood." Instead, Samaroo said, he believes that many of his clients "sought the priesthood to escape their own sexual inadequacy."
Samaroo said that in most cases, a priest will search for a "very Catholic" young person whose parents are particularly dedicated to the church. A priest will look for a family that "is willing to abdicate much of its responsibility of parenting to the church," he said.
Based on interviews, depositions and court records, what follows are accounts of three of the people who received money in settlements with the Camden Diocese:
Stephen Palo said he cannot erase the image of his first sexual experience
from his memory:
Awakening from a sound sleep in the bedroom of his Blackwood home, 12-year- old Stephen Palo looks down and finds his parish priest massaging his genitals. Soon the priest begins oral sex.
"I pushed away," Palo, now 31, said in a recent interview. "I pulled the covers up to my neck. I felt like I was in the corner of the wall, apart from myself, just looking at it."
Thus began what Palo said was a 15-year relationship of routine sexual contact between Palo, an altar boy, and the Rev. Joseph Shannon, who directed the altar boy group at St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church in Camden.
Father Shannon - currently on a leave of absence - acknowledged in a sworn deposition that he had sex with Palo.
In the deposition, Father Shannon was asked: "Weren't you supposed to conduct yourself as a priest even when you're in the Palo residence?"
"Yes," Father Shannon said.
"Did you?" the lawyer asked.
"Except in the middle of the night, yes," Father Shannon responded.
He said he was "certainly not the ideal priest, that's for sure."
In the deposition, the priest disputed Palo's account of their relationship to this extent: Father Shannon said Palo had initiated the affair, and he said Palo was 18 at the time. Father Shannon's testimony contained graphic descriptions of some of his sexual relations with Palo.
Palo, who is in counseling, said he is struggling to understand how and why 20 years of his life centered on an intense relationship with a priest.
The priest had a close relationship with Palo's parents. Palo's father, who is now deceased, taught in the local elementary school. His mother described Father Shannon as outgoing and friendly.
The Palos would invite the priest to their home. They fed him. They opened the family liquor closet to him.
"He would drink scotch and talk to my parents," Palo said. "When he had a little too much to drink, my parents would tell him he could sleep over."
He slept in Stephen's room.
Father Shannon would counsel the family, especially Stephen and his older brother. When problems arose, it was the priest, not Stephen's father, who would talk to the boys and guide them, Palo said.
When they did something out of line, Father Shannon always understood, Palo said.
"He would say, 'God understands your weaknesses. Don't worry.' And everybody would feel better," Palo said.
Throughout Palo's younger days, Father Shannon would wrestle with him and tickle him, Palo said. He would visit the family sometimes up to four times a week.
"We were living in Blackwood," Palo said in a legal deposition. "We had just moved in a new house and I was sleeping in my bedroom, and Father Shannon had come into my room and started massaging my body."
Q. "Did these experiences continue on any regular basis?"
A. "I'd say like every - about twice a month. Father Shannon was over the house a lot. He didn't sleep over all the time, but when he did, things would happen."
The attorney asked Palo to describe what happened. Palo said Father Shannon, during sex, would always reassure him, much like he did during his early childhood, saying:
"It's OK, Steve. Don't worry. God understands this is a weakness. Don't worry about it. You'll be OK. You're not going to go to hell for this. This is fine. God understands weaknesses, and this is a weakness and He understands."
Q. "Whose weakness? His or yours? Did he say?"
"No," answered Palo. "He just - those were his words."
In an interview, Palo said that he had never told his parents about the relationship with Father Shannon, and that his family had never suspected.
Palo said that when he was older and dated women, he continued having sex with Father Shannon, and that at least once he went to the rectory and solicited sex from the priest.
"Father Shannon created a security for me. He made believe that he could take care of all my wrongs and all my hurt," Palo said in the deposition.
When Palo was 27, Father Shannon said he would no longer continue the relationship, Palo said.
Palo said he had two reactions: Confusion. And relief.
"When he finally left," Palo said, "I moved my bed so that it faced the doorway. That way, I would see who was coming into my room."
In 1990, a year after Father Shannon terminated the relationship, Palo began a relationship with a woman, and for the first time talked openly about his experiences with the priest.
He then filed a lawsuit.
In 1992, Judge John A. Fratto of Camden County Superior Court ruled that Palo could not collect money from the church because of a legal rule known as "charitable immunity," which prevents anyone who receives benefits from a nonprofit organization from suing it.
In addition, his case was barred by the statute of limitations, which requires a victim to file a lawsuit within two years of recalling what happened.
Palo threatened to appeal. The diocese settled the case with two checks totaling $50,000.
Mary McCracken, the mother of six, said she was elated when John McElroy, filled with youthful exuberance, drove into the Haddon Heights parish on his motorcycle in 1986. The young seminarian, whose priestly ordination she later attended, was attentive and thoughtful toward her children, especially her three boys, she said.
She was widowed and recently remarried, and was grateful that a man of the cloth had taken an interest in her sons. That, she said in a recent interview, seemed like an answer to her prayers.
The McCracken sons, ages 11 through 15, were drawn to the newly ordained priest.
Through the next three years, "Father Jack," as the family came to call him, was present at most family functions and was chosen to baptize the youngest child when she was born in 1987.
Father McElroy was transferred to St. Francis de Sales parish in Barrington.
One day in 1988, McCracken's 12-year-old came home from school and told her he had developed a serious drug problem. Shocked and confused, McCracken enrolled him in a six-week rehabilitation program.
On a Mother's Day she said she will never forget, she got a telephone call asking her to come immediately to the Bowling Green Adolescent Center in Camden County.
"You have to tell your mother," she recalls a counselor telling her son. "I can't do it for you."
Pale and shaken, the youth began an explanation:
"It wasn't drugs at all," she recalls her son telling her.
"McElroy was sexually abusing him," she said. "He fondled him and touched him at least five or six times."
McCracken said that according to her son, one of the first instances of sexual abuse happened in the shower stall at St. Francis de Sales Rectory in Barrington.
On the witness stand at the 1989 criminal trial of McElroy in Camden County Superior Court, the youth told his story in detail.
"Father Jack was doing things to me and touching me in places where he shouldn't," he testified.
The former priest admitted the sex abuse when questioned by Barrington police after a counselor reported the problem. In a taped statement, McElroy explained that he was giving the boy a shower when he touched the boy's penis "for maybe a minute or so."
McElroy also told police that a few weeks later he spent the night with the boy, and that they had sex.
"I knew it was wrong," the priest, then 30, said of the incidents.
Later, McElroy recanted his statements, saying they were taken under duress
because he was denied immediate access to a lawyer. At McElroy's trial, Judge D. Donald Palese ruled that the statement was legally obtained, and it was used as evidence in front of the jury.
McElroy was convicted of two counts of sexually abusing a teenage boy. Now 34 and married, McElroy is serving a five-year prison term.
The diocese, in 1990, awarded the McCracken family a $700,000 annuity in an out-of-court settlement.
Mary McCracken said she was relieved when the jury convicted McElroy, in part because she felt many of her neighbors, some of her friends - even her pastor - did not believe what her son was saying. She said her pastor, Msgr. Richard J. Callahan, told her he could not offer her support.
In an interview, Msgr. Callahan said that "the community was split" on this issue, and that he didn't take sides. "All I knew was what I read in the papers," he said. "I wanted to be able to help all of them."
McCracken later wrote in a diary: "I was left to deal with the issues and problems that accompany sexual abuse, alone and abandoned."
The incidents left her feeling abandoned by an institution central to her life.
"I am from a hard-working, middle-class family who depended on the church for support and understanding," she wrote in the diary.
"We volunteered our time and money to help spread our Christian beliefs within our community. We trusted our parish priests and sometimes thought of them as family."
She said she no longer trusts the church.
John Moken 2d, dressed in denim cutoffs, slouched in an overstuffed chair, his muscular, tanned legs stretched in front of him. He ran his hands nervously through spiked blonde hair.
"I'm a tough guy," said the South Jersey landscaper and father of two. "I don't want anybody to think I'm (homosexual)."
Moken, 34, eyes cast downward, haltingly gave intimate details of what he said had been his introduction to sex.
When he was 10, he said, a priest performed oral sex on him, in a rectory.
"My wife keeps telling me I don't have to prove I am a man," he said. "But it's still there. I wonder if it ever goes away."
For seven years, Moken said, he and several friends were repeatedly abused by priests from the Camden Diocese.
In interviews and a sworn statement to St. Gregory's parish in Magnolia, Moken described sexual contact by several priests, including the Rev. John Kelly of St. Gregory's, now dead.
In a 1992 statement Moken gave to Msgr. Edward L. Korda of St. Gregory's, he spoke about what happened to him and one other boy:
"We came to know Father John Kelly as grammar school students at St. Gregory at ages of 9 to 12. We were altar boys. He selected us as special friends, telling us that he checked our school records, that he liked us and wanted to help us. Father Kelly took us on trips, vacations, bought us gifts, a TV for the family and a motorcycle. Our association with Kelly and the accompanying sexual activity lasted for about six years."
"While at the St. Gregory rectory one evening, Father Kelly gave me some beers and got me a little drunk," Moken said in the statement. "It was at that time that he began to rub me. He told me that it was all right; he started to rub my back, then my legs, and shortly thereafter had me take off all of my clothes and he began to rub my penis."
In another statement, Moken described later events:
"Father Kelly began to invite us into his rectory rooms and brought us there many, many times. He gave us whatever alcoholic drink we wanted and proceeded to get drunk himself. All this seemed to be new and special. He showed us Playboy and Penthouse magazines, a variety of nude photos, wrestled with us and took off our clothes, showered with us . . ." The statement went on to give graphic descriptions of sex acts.
"They had a little clique," Moken said of the priests. "You went to confession to them, and they told you everything was all right."
Over a period of six years, the priests took Moken and some of the other boys to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Long Beach Island, Moken said.
"They would take us to a gay bar on Long Beach Island and sneak us drinks," he said. "You could get Rob Roys, martinis, anything you wanted."
The priests and boys would stay overnight at the home of a judge who believed he was turning his house over to the priests so they could take underprivileged children for a weekend at the beach, Moken said.
Father Kelly and some of the other priests warned the boys not to speak about the relationship to their parents, Moken said, and told them to stay away from women.
"Men do it together all over the world," Moken said he was taught.
As the relationship with the priests continued, Moken said, he grew increasingly confused.
He said he woke up one morning asking himself: "Who am I?"
Moken never considered telling his mother, and he kept the secret into his adulthood.
He said he had gone through a period of aggressive behavior and sometimes
violent outbursts, working as a bouncer in South Jersey bars.
Six years ago he married. He and his wife are raising two sons, ages 5 and 5 months.
In the statement to Msgr. Korda, Moken talked about the effect the priests had on him.
"All the events that took place over the years left us embarrassed and ashamed," he said.
"But Father Kelly assured us that God understood his need for gratification, and that as a priest he was entitled to this satisfaction. He said that God loved him and us.
"We were afraid, and at the same time we listened to him because he was a priest."
In his statement, Moken said that for both him and his family, the experience eroded their Catholic faith.
"Over the years, our trust in and of priests has been destroyed. We pray to God - but not really as Catholics."
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