Brothers Can Sue Defrocked Priest
Rulingexempts Parish, Archdiocese
By Charles Austin
The Record [Bergen County, NJ]
March 13, 2002
A state appeals court has ruled that two brothers who say a priest in Northvale sexually abused them three decades ago may sue the now-defrocked priest, but cannot sue the archdiocese or the parish he served.
In a 1999 ruling, a lower court held that the civil suit could not be brought because the brothers, who claimed to have "recovered their memories" in mid-1992, waited too long to bring the suit. This week's decision said the Superior Court erred in that ruling. But the recent decision upheld the ruling that the parish and archdiocese could not be sued.
Michael and Thomas Corsie, formerly of Northvale, contend that the Rev. Michael G. Campanalonga abused them from 1966-1974. When the Corsies wrote a letter to the archdiocese in 1993, Campanalonga was asked to have a psychiatric evaluation; he refused and was removed from the priesthood. A year later, the brothers brought their civil suit.
Jim Lisovicz, an attorney for the archdiocese, said the court's decision this week was a "proper ruling. " "There are a lot of things in the opinion," he said, "that make it clear that this is not a case where the archdiocese failed to respond to allegations of abuse. " Since the case began, the Archdiocese of Newark contended that -- even if it had been negligent in supervising the priest -- it could not be sued under state law, because the "charitable immunity" statute says a non-profit corporation organized exclusively for religious, charitable, educational, or hospital purposes is not liable for damages arising from the ordinary negligence of someone acting on its behalf.
It was on that basis that both court rulings removed the archdiocese and St. Anthony's parish in Northvale from the case.
The plaintiffs unsuccessfully argued in the most recent action that the church's actions went beyond negligence and constituted "willful, wanton, or reckless" disregard.
Attorney Stephen Rubino of Margate, who represented Thomas Corsie, said he was "extremely disappointed," especially because the judge in the earlier ruling said she believed there was no doubt that they had been abused. He said he was considering an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
An appeal in this and similar cases might end up challenging that charitable immunity statute, Rubino said.
Campanalonga has never responded to the civil suit, and a default judgment has been issued against him because of that. The ex-priest is believed to be living in Florida, Rubino said. Attempts to locate him in Florida were unsuccessful.
The case has followed a complex legal path extending almost seven years. The plaintiffs in 1994 requested all the records the archdiocese had on Campanalonga, but the church contended that some documents were confidential or fell under the "priest-penitent" exemption because they involved communications between the priest and his bishop. Other church records were said to be lost, perhaps in the move of church offices. The church eventually had some documents reviewed by a judge, who determined that they were not relevant to the case.
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