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  Diocesan Officials Kept Abuse Claims Quiet
A Camden Monsignor Said He " Didn't See a Need" to Call Authorities. He Testified As Part of a Class-Action Suit Alleging a Church Cover-Up

By Nancy Phillips
Philadelphia Inquirer
April 2, 2002

ATLANTIC CITY - An official of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden testified yesterday that he had neither alerted law-enforcement authorities nor taken notes when a woman told him in 1984 that a parish priest had sexually abused her two sons for years, and had also assaulted her and other members of her family.

Msgr. Joseph W. Pokusa, testifying in an elaborate and widely watched civil case, said he did not contact authorities because he believed New Jersey law required this only when such allegations came from a minor.

Nor did he encourage the woman to call police.

"I didn't see a need to do it," Msgr. Pokusa said. He said the woman, Joan Young, had told him she did not want to see the accused priest "hurt."

The testimony came on the first day of a series of scheduled hearings in which Young's two sons, Robert and Philip, along with 16 other people, are alleging that the diocese conspired to conceal accusations of pedophilia for decades and should now be held responsible and pay for damages.

The lawsuit contends that church officials knew of numerous cases of sex abuse by priests dating back virtually to the creation of the diocese in 1937, but covered up the incidents and failed to discipline the priests or report the abuse to authorities.

Lawyers for the Camden Diocese have denied these claims, saying that the church was unaware of such abuse and would not have condoned it. They also argue that the Youngs, who sued in 1995, waited too long to go to court and that the case should be dismissed.

"Why did the plaintiffs wait for a decade before they brought this suit?" Charles W. Heuisler, lawyer for Msgr. Pokusa and several other church officials, asked in court yesterday. "They were hurt and they did nothing. Why?"

That question is at the heart of the civil case, which will test the boundaries of New Jersey's statute of limitations in child-sex-abuse cases. The Youngs and others in the class-action suit against the diocese argue that "religious duress" prevented them from suing the church sooner. As devout Catholics, they had been raised to revere priests as "direct messengers of God" and were loath to challenge them, the plaintiffs say.

"This was a good Catholic family. . . . The last thing in their mind is to harm the church," said Stephen C. Rubino, lawyer for the Youngs and the other plaintiffs, outside court yesterday. "They wanted to get help from the church."

According to the suit, Joan Young told Bishop George H. Guilfoyle in 1984 that her teenage sons had been repeatedly fondled and sodomized by Msgr. Philip Rigney between 1978 and 1982. The abuse, they said, took place in church rectories in Camden and Barrington and on family vacations to Florida and Canada, where the priest accompanied them and their parents.

Msgr. Rigney, who is now living in Florida and according to his lawyer is in poor health, denied the abuse in a sworn deposition in the case last year. He had been subpoenaed to appear in court yesterday but did not show up because he is ailing, said his lawyer, L. Patricia Sampoli.

Rubino said in court yesterday that Bishop Guilfoyle, in a meeting with the family in 1984, warned the Youngs not to go to law-enforcement authorities, saying that to do so would be "harmful" to the church and the family. In court documents, the Youngs have said the bishop, who has since died, assured them that Msgr. Rigney would be removed from his post and sent for counseling.

In his deposition, Msgr. Rigney said that he had offered to step down but that Bishop Guilfoyle had asked him to stay on, transferring him to another parish until his retirement in 1987. He said he did not receive any counseling or mental-health treatment.

Yesterday's hearing was to decide the narrow question of whether the Youngs had waited too long to bring their claim. Under New Jersey law, civil claims in child-sex-abuse cases generally must be filed by the time the victim reaches age 20 - but the law allows exceptions in cases where the victim can show that duress or mental instability delayed the filing of a claim.

In court yesterday, the Young brothers - Robert, 35, and Philip, 34 - sat silently as Msgr. Pokusa, the diocese chancellor, described how the church had handled the family's accusations nearly two decades earlier.

Rubino suggested that under state law, the church should have reported the allegations to law-enforcement officials. Currently, New Jersey law says anyone who has "reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse" has to alert state officials.

Msgr. Pokusa recalled taking the initial report of the abuse from Joan Young. He testified that she told him that Msgr. Rigney had abused her sons and, years earlier, their father. She also said that she, too, had been abused, as had the boys' uncle and members of another family, Msgr. Pokusa testified in answer to questions from Rubino. Neither Rubino's questions nor the priest's answers revealed details about the alleged abuse.

Msgr. Pokusa said that he found Joan Young "credible," but that he had not reported the abuse to authorities or suggested to the bishop that he do so.

Brian P. Tierney, a public-relations consultant to the Camden Diocese, talked to reporters during a break in the hearing.

"If it occurred the way the Youngs say it occurred, it's horrendous," Tierney said. ". . . The policy of the Diocese of Camden since the early '90s and even before is, if a minor came forward, to report it to authorities and to encourage them to report it to authorities." He said the church also offers free counseling even in the most "incredible" cases.

The diocese includes about 450,000 Catholics and stretches from the Delaware River to the Jersey Shore. The case is being heard by Atlantic County Superior Court Judge John G. Himmelberger Jr.

 
 

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