Lawyers Accuse Church of Covering up Sex Abuse

By David Voreacos
The Record [Bergen County, NJ]
October 23, 1999

The Archdiocese of Newark concealed records that may have shown that two boys were sexually abused by a priest at St. Anthony's Roman Catholic Church in Northvale three decades ago, lawyers for the alleged victims charged Friday.

Thomas and Michael J. Corsie, who are brothers, allege in a lawsuit filed in Superior Court in Essex County that a former parish priest, Michael G. Campanalonga, molested and sexually assaulted them between 1966 and 1972.

The Corsies, who said they recovered memories of the abuse during therapy sessions in 1992, also say that the archdiocese and Monsignor James Johnson failed to protect them from a priest they knew was a pedophile.

But the archdiocese and Johnson have asked Superior Court Judge Carol A. Ferentz to drop them from the five-year-old lawsuit. In court Friday, a lawyer for the archdiocese neither acknowledged or denied that any abuse had occurred, but he did say there was no coverup. He said some of the priest's personnel records were accidentally lost during a move to a new office.

And, the archdiocese argues, the church is immune from liability under the state Charitable Immunity Act, which covers religious institutions. Under that law, the church cannot be held responsible for Campanalonga's actions if it was merely negligent. Lawyers for the Corsies contend that the behavior of the archdiocese and Johnson went beyond negligence. Indeed, the lawyers said the church"willfully and wantonly"hid records to cover up its knowledge of the abuse.

Attorney Michael J. Geron said he requested personnel records on Campanalonga between 1962, when the priest began work, and 1995, when he was ultimately defrocked by the church. But the church mysteriously lost all records relating to the priest during the period of the abuse, Geron said.

"There is no record that this priest lived or breathed from 1966 to 1972,"said Geron, who represents Thomas Corsie."It was the pattern and practice of the church not to create a paper trail." But an attorney for the archdiocese and Johnson, James Lisovicz, denied that there was any coverup. He said the archdiocese lost the records in moving its headquarters, and that the Corsies attorney cannot prove that Johnson knew of the abuse.

"Any abuse is serious,"Lisovicz said in the Newark courtroom."But when you make an accusation that Monsignor Johnson had to know about this, you have to have proof."

Campanalonga, who served as an assistant at the Northvale parish from 1965 to 1973, was permanently suspended by the archdiocese in 1993 after refusing to undergo a psychiatric evaluation following allegations of sexual misconduct.

He has moved to Florida and never responded to the lawsuit, prompting Ferentz to enter a default judgment against him in 1995. The ruling makes Campanalonga legally liable for damages, even though the case never went to trial.

Geron, citing a rumor he heard from a former parishioner, also told the judge that the Northvale Police Department knew of alleged abuse by Campanalonga. When Geron tried to obtain police records, he said he was told that all the records from the period were seized by the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office for an investigation of corruption in the department.

The judge, who scolded Geron repeatedly for his behavior and his failure to comply with her orders in the case, cast doubt on the rumor. "Not only are you accusing the church of a coverup, but you go so far as to say there was a coverup in the Police Department,"Ferentz said."I have a pedophile priest, a corrupt church that covered up, and a corrupt Police Department that covered up." She also grew impatient with attorney James S. Lynch, who represents Michael Corsie, after he asserted that two other victims have described sexual abuse.

"I'm warning you, this is a very sensitive issue,"Ferentz said. "How do you know it was known to anyone in the parish?" The judge repeatedly questioned how missing records offer proof that Johnson or anyone else in the archdiocese knew of the abuse. If the abuse actually happened, she said,"it's absolutely egregious, atrocious, and just unspeakable beyond words."But she said the issue is whether the archdiocese had knowledge of the abuse.

Lisovicz, the church attorney, said,"there are no records that incriminate the archdiocese."

The judge has privately reviewed hundreds of records from the archdiocese, and has turned over most of them to the Corsies attorneys. The archdiocese mounted a stiff legal challenge to turning over most of the records, and the issue reached the state Supreme Court. The judge declined decide Friday whether to dismiss Johnson and the archdiocese from the suit. Geron said that a trial is set for Dec. 6 to determine at least what damages could be demanded from Campanalonga.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.