2 S. Jersey Teens Ask Victims of Priest Abuse to Speak out
They Were Assaulted by Their Own Priests, They Said, and They Urged Other Young Victims to End Their Silence
By Nancy Phillips
October 9, 2002
Two South Jersey teenagers who say they were abused by priests stood outside a church in Merchantville yesterday and called on other young people to break the silence that often surrounds such abuse and come forward to tell their stories.
The unusual protest, organized by a national support group for those victimized by priests, came a day after the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden announced stringent new rules for dealing with sex offenders in the clergy and church officials who cover up for them.
"The victims are not all middle-aged men in their 50s and 60s," said Kerry Sanborn, 17, who said she was groped by a priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Berlin last year. "These crimes happen to women, and they're happening now."
Jonathan Norton, 17, of Atco, told of two years of abuse by a priest who was close to his family. Norton, the subject of a story in last Sunday's Inquirer, said he carried the shame of his experience for years until he found the courage to tell his parents. He said he wanted to reach out to other young people who were abused.
"I'm on a journey to help other kids before something goes wrong in their lives," Norton said as he stood in front of St. Peter's parish, where he was an altar boy when the priest allegedly molested him. "If there's kids out there that need help, I want them to come forward."
Norton and Sanborn, who were joined by their mothers and by members of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), called on the church to deal sternly with abusers and to support changes in state law that would extend the statute of limitations for filing criminal charges.
As they spoke, SNAP members held posters with pictures of abuse victims. One photo was of Gary Mulford, 42, of Tuckerton, N.J. Yesterday, Mulford gestured to the stone building with its soaring stained-glass windows and said that inside its rectory, three priests had assaulted him when he was a teenager. Mulford, who is among 18 people suing over alleged abuse, said he was sorry to see members of a new generation suffer. The suit says diocesan officials protected abusers; the diocese denies this.
"It disheartens me to see that this has continued to go on over the years," said Mulford. "Had the church listened to our pleas for change back then, Jonathan wouldn't be standing here right now."
Now, the church is listening. On Monday, the diocese announced rules that call for abusers to be defrocked, and for those who protect them to be punished or dismissed. And on Monday night, Camden Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio sat with Norton and offered an apology for abuse the young man said he suffered from age 8 to age 10.
"The first apology I got was last night from Bishop DiMarzio," said Norton, who, with his mother, Cathy, met the bishop at his retreat house in Blackwood. "It made me feel better to meet with him. He told me I was courageous and he was proud of me."
Norton sued the diocese in 1999 and settled for more than $600,000, his family said. The confidential settlement was not disclosed to parishioners.
The priest, the Rev. James F. Hopkins, was removed from ministry in 1995 after one of Norton's older brothers reported that he had been assaulted by the priest. In both cases, the diocese contacted prosecutors, who investigated but brought no charges.
Father Hopkins, who lives in Florida, has declined to comment.
Kerry Sanborn said she was working in the Berlin church's rectoryas a receptionist in January 2001 when the Rev. Laserian Nwoga rubbed her shoulders, kissed her cheek, slipped his hands under her shirt, and touched her below her breasts.
She told her mother, who contacted the diocese and later sued. The priest wrote an apology to the family, calling the incident a "misunderstanding."
Diocesan spokesman Andrew Walton said church officials determined that the episode was not criminal abuse but was "clearly inappropriate and unwelcome." The diocese reported it to prosecutors and transferred the priest to a chaplain's post at Underwood Hospital in Woodbury.
Father Nwoga could not be reached for comment yesterday.
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