Scandals in the Church: New Jersey
Bishop Says He'll Repay Diocese That Settled Negligence Suit
By Richard Lezin Jones
New York Times
June 13, 2002
The Roman Catholic bishop of Paterson has said he intends to repay $250,000 that the diocese spent to settle a negligence suit stemming from a sexual abuse claim against a fellow priest, a diocesan lawyer said today.
The move by Bishop Frank J. Rodimer, leader of the 377,000-member Paterson Diocese, is being closely watched by legal scholars and theologians, who said they were not aware of any similar reimbursement plans by other church leaders.
The bishop's statements came at a meeting on Monday with parishioners at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Pompton Plains to discuss molestation allegations against another priest who once served at the church and has been accused of sexually abusing young boys at churches in the diocese.
The diocesan lawyer, Kenneth F. Mullaney, said that during the meeting, a parishioner rose to complain that church funds were being used to settle sexual abuse lawsuits against the diocese, including the negligence suit against Bishop Rodimer himself.
The bishop responded that he would reimburse the diocese, saying he hoped that it would assuage his conscience. He did not say where he would get the money, or when he would pay.
Bishop Rodimer's announcement, first reported today by The Star-Ledger of Newark, caught many off guard, including some of the bishop's own legal advisers. "I was very surprised for a number of different reasons, not the least of which was that he has absolutely no obligation to do so," Mr. Mullaney said.
The suit that named the bishop arose from the conviction of the Rev. Peter J. Osinski, a priest formerly in the Diocese of Camden, who is serving 10 years in prison after admitting that he had molested a boy for seven years. The suit charged that some of the molestation occurred in a beach house that the bishop had rented with Father Osinski. The suit did not accuse the bishop of having had sexual contact with the child, but it did say he was negligent for failing to recognize the distress of the boy, a parishioner whom it did not identify. The suit named the Diocese of Camden, the bishop and Father Osinski.
Bishop Rodimer has repeatedly said he was not aware that the abuse had occurred until Father Osinski was arrested. The bishop acknowledged the 1999 settlement in April after an article was published in The Herald News of West Paterson.
Settlements that are paid in such cases often use funds from church insurance policies. Sometimes, as in Bishop Rodimer's case, the money comes from "self-insurance policies," which are often created using money donated by parishioners.
Some legal scholars wondered whether Bishop Rodimer's decision to refund the money would motivate other church leaders to do likewise.
"It might be some kind of suggestion to others that they should do the same thing," said Prof. Frank Askin of the School of Law at Rutgers University-Newark. "My guess is that he's embarrassed by it; he felt he needed to make amends. It's to his credit that he's done this."
At Our Lady of Good Counsel today, many lauded the bishop's decision. "Maybe what he did was wrong -- that's God's decision," said Margaret Sullivan, 43, of Wayne as she lighted a votive candle. "The fact that he is willing to pay back the diocese, take responsibility for his actions and not have the parishioners or the people suffer anymore is something to be proud of."
But some advocates for those abused by clergymen were reluctant to commend the bishop.
"Praise him? For what? Getting caught?" said Mary Grant of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "I'm fairly certain that the original document did not call for him to repay the quarter-million dollars. It's another cover-up being exposed."
Others said that as new developments propel the scandal, the church might be forced to change its stance on settlements and the use of parishioner donations.
"It's something that's hanging over the Catholic Church in the United States since these allegations began to surface," said James Turner Johnson, a religion professor at Rutgers.
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