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  Former Brevard Priest Faces Sex Assault Suit
In the Wake of Charges against the Priest, the Diocese Has Sent a Letter to All Parishes to Be Read at Sunday's Masses

By Jim Leusner and Lynn Bumpus-Hooper
Orlando Sentinel [Florida]
February 18, 1995

A man who says he was sexually assaulted in 1992 by a Brevard County mental health counselor and former Catholic priest filed suit Friday against the counselor and several current and former officials of the Diocese of Orlando.

The man, then 17 and identified by the fictitious name of John Smith, charged that Thomas James Pagni, 45, formerly of Merritt Island, had a sexual relationship with the youth from June to October 1992. At the time, the suit says, the youth was a Pagni client.

The suit also charges that Pagni, ordained in 1977, had a history of sexually abusing young boys from 1973 as a seminary student to 1986, when he was forced out of the priesthood. It charges he was moved from churches in Winter Park, Ocala, Palm Bay and Leesburg, each time after sexual misconduct allegations.

The suit, filed in Brevard Circuit Court by Merritt Island attorney Sheldon Stevens, charged that the diocese concealed Pagni's conduct and ultimately made a deal for him to resign from the priesthood by paying for his graduate studies. It seeks an unspecified damages.

Among those named as defendants are Arthur Bendixen, former chancellor of the Diocese of Orlando. Bendixen was named last week in an Orlando lawsuit by a former altar boy who said he was sexually abused during a 12-year relationship starting in 1982. The suit filed Friday does not allege sexual abuse by Bendixen.

Diocese spokeswoman Mary St. Pierre said church officials received the lawsuit late Friday but did not have time to study it. She said the church would comment at an appropriate time.

St. Pierre also said that a letter was sent Friday to the pastors of all parishes in the diocese. She would not divulge the letter's contents, but said the pastors would be reading the letter to their parishioners on Sunday.

Bendixen - who later became a top diocese official - left the position of chancellor in 1991 to head a seminary in Boynton Beach. After accusations of sexual misconduct, he was suspended by the diocese last year and barred from performing priestly duties.

The suit filed Friday said the diocese had agreed to conceal Pagni's background and pay for his books, tuition, expenses and room and board at Nova University in Fort Lauderdale for two years.

Pagni, who relatives say is undergoing counseling and lives in Tampa, could not be reached for comment. College and state licensing records show he graduated with a master's degree in psychology in August 1988. He worked as a counselor for troubled kids at Crosswinds Youth Services in Merritt Island, before becoming a licensed mental health counselor in 1991.

The suit also names Bishop Norbert Dorsey; former Bishop Thomas Grady; two former top diocese officials, Nicholas King and Bendixen; and Winter Park psychologist Thomas Saunders, who treated Pagni while he was a priest.

It charged those church officials and Saunders were negligent by failing to report knowledge of Pagni's problems to the Florida Department of Professional Regulation or authorities. Saunders is accused of failing to list on DPR reference forms that Pagni was "a child molester" who was unfit to be a licensed counselor, the suit said.

Saunders denied any wrongdoing.

When told of the allegations in the suit, Saunders replied: "What they're basically questioning is whether healing can ever happen ... whether you can ever close a chapter in your life and whether therapy ever works."

The suit recounts an Oct. 16, 1992, incident when Smith's father came home and found his son naked on his bed, with Pagni standing next to him, pulling up his pants.

Smith's father contacted Rockledge police, and DPR investigators began a probe. Records show Pagni denied having sexual contact with any patient, but his license was suspended in April 1993 based on Smith's charges and allegations from another patient, according to DPR records.

Smith later told investigators that he and Pagni rode in Pagni's car, to the movies or bowling, and later moved on to sexual acts.

Brevard prosecutors filed two counts of sexual battery and three other sex-related charges stemming from Smith's allegations, said Assistant State Attorney Meryl Allawas. But Brevard deputy sheriffs have been unable to locate him since August, Allawas said.

Stevens, who obtained information about Pagni through depositions in an unrelated abuse case in the late 1980s involving a priest, said he was stunned to read in a local newspaper a few years ago that Pagni had been suspended by the state.

"I thought, 'How the hell did he ever get licensed,' " Stevens said. Later, Stevens said a therapist referred Smith to him.

"If the diocese had acted in 1987 on what they knew, these kids would have never had to suffer like they did. What the diocese did was beyond stupid," Stevens said.

 
 

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