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  Ex-Jupiter Priest Named in N.J. Sex Suit

By Robert P. King
Palm Beach Post (Florida)
April 6, 2002

Years before he began saying Masses at a Jupiter parish in 1991, retired Monsignor Philip Rigney faced accusations that he had molested two generations of boys in a New Jersey family.

The allegations continued in 1994, when a wide-ranging New Jersey lawsuit accused Rigney and other Catholic Church leaders of systematically molesting children and covering up the assaults over five decades.

But church leaders in Palm Beach County say they never knew - until Friday.

The Palm Beach Diocese announced Friday that it was revoking Rigney's permission to celebrate Mass and perform other sacraments after confirming he's a defendant in the New Jersey suit. The diocese inquired about the suit - which is still working its way through the courts - in response to questions from The Palm Beach Post.

Rigney, who is in his mid-80s, arrived in 1991 with a letter of recommendation from his bishop in Camden, N.J., Palm Beach Diocese spokesman Sam Barbaro said.

Camden's bishop at the time was James Thomas McHugh, who would later be named as a defendant in the 1994 lawsuit. Rigney had served as vicar and vice chancellor in the Camden diocese, among other high posts he held there from 1951 to 1986, according to court documents.

Rigney also came from a family with ties to powerful church leaders. His younger brother James used to be rector at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, perhaps the most celebrated Catholic church in the United States, and was a secretary to the beloved New York Cardinal Francis Spellman.

After coming to Florida, Barbaro said, Rigney celebrated Mass for years with no complaints at St. Peter Catholic Church in Jupiter. He stopped at some point because of failing health, Barbaro said.

Rigney has denied the abuse allegations, according to a deposition he gave to attorneys in the lawsuit. The Post was unable to reach Rigney, who lives on Singer Island in Riviera Beach, or his attorney in Atlantic City, N.J.

Friday's revelation came just four days after St. Peter parishioners learned that another priest who sometimes said Mass there, Monsignor William White, had faced sexual abuse accusations in New York in the 1970s. White resigned March 13 from the faculty of St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary near Boynton Beach.

The Palm Beach Diocese has faced a series of such revelations since March 8, when Anthony O'Connell became the second bishop here in less than four years to resign because of past sexual misconduct.

The news about Rigney brought yet another expression of outrage from St. Peter parishioner Edward Ricci, a prominent church fund-raiser who has denounced the diocese's handling of the sex scandals.

Ricci said Rigney celebrated two Masses at St. Peter every weekend and heard confessions on Saturday afternoons for years, stopping a little more than a year ago. He said Rigney attends services as a parishioner.

"Now two of the priests who served me in this parish" are accused as pedophiles, Ricci said. "This shatters my confidence in the administration of this diocese to handle this mess."

"Any organization like this would be asked to file for bankruptcy right now," he added.

Barbaro said he does not know how thoroughly the diocese screened incoming priests in 1991. Under current procedures, any priest or lay employee who would have unsupervised access to children must undergo a background check that includes a review of lawsuits, he said.

Meanwhile, the lawyer who filed the New Jersey suit said he is dumbfounded that Rigney could have gotten a letter of recommendation from the Camden Diocese - especially a letter from another alleged perpetrator.

"I'm speechless, but hey, I'm not surprised," said Stephen Rubino, who filed the suit on behalf of more than three dozen alleged victims and their relatives. "You are looking at actual proof of the conspiracy."

Camden Diocese spokesman Andrew Walton could not say Friday whether church leaders there had told the Palm Beach Diocese about the lawsuit. Because the lawsuit is ongoing, Walton also declined to say whether any sexual abuse ever occurred in the diocese.

"Our policy is that sexual abuse of minors is not only a sin, it's a crime that must be reported," Walton said. "And the offenders must be removed from ministry."

But Camden church leaders knew at least as far back as 1984 that Rigney had been accused of molesting two brothers in one family, one of whom had been named Phil in his honor, according to internal church memos entered as exhibits in the lawsuit. The family also has accused Rigney of molesting the boys' father and an uncle years earlier, court documents show.

The suit alleges that the abuse took place at priest residences in New Jersey, along with undisclosed sites in Florida and Canada.

One son, Philip Young, dropped out of school, got into scrapes with the police and twice tried to kill himself before telling his parents of the abuse, according to a church document from February 1984.

Six months later, another memo says, Camden church leaders assured the Youngs that Rigney would receive "professional help."

But in fact, Rubino said, the diocese merely moved Rigney to another parish in New Jersey. And Rigney remained a vicar for the diocese until 1986, according to another document in the suit.

In a sworn deposition, Rigney told attorneys he offered to resign but said the Camden bishop at the time, George Guilfoyle, persuaded him to stay. Rigney said he did not receive any counseling.

Rubino filed the suit against 18 priests, the estates of numerous dead priests, and six living and dead bishops, along with the Camden Diocese and the U.S. Catholic Conference, along with other defendants.

The defendants include the estate of Rigney's late brother Dennis, another Catholic monsignor who also retired to Florida. The suit makes no allegations against his other brother, Monsignor James Rigney, who died two years ago in Singer Island at the age of 77.

The lawsuit alleges that high-ranking pedophiles in the Camden Diocese raped, sodomized, fondled and otherwise abused altar boys, teenage girls and other children for decades while using their power to intimidate families and cover up the abuses.

Walton, the diocesan spokesman, noted that a judge has thrown out the suit's allegations that the church was guilty of a racketeering conspiracy.

In court proceedings this week in Atlantic County Superior Court, the two sides are sparring over whether the plaintiffs waited too long after the alleged abuse to file suit.

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 when the victim can show that duress or mental instability delayed them.

 
 

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