Former Altar Boy Seeks $50M
Suit Names Church in Binghamton

By Nancy Dooling
Press & Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY)
December 21, 2002

BINGHAMTON — A former altar boy at a Binghamton church is seeking $50 million in damages for sexual abuse he claims he suffered from a priest at the church nearly 40 years ago.

The suit names St. Mary of the Assumption Church on Court Street, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, Bishop James M. Moynihan, and the Holy See as defendants. It may be the first of its kind filed in Broome County since the priest sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston in January, said Ronald R. Benjamin, the attorney who represents the plaintiff in this case.

The Rev. Bernard A. Garstka recruited the alleged victim as an altar boy when the boy was 10, court documents indicate. The suit alleges Garstka, an assistant priest at the downtown parish, fondled the boy beginning in 1963.

As the relationship progressed, Garstka had sex with the boy, according to the suit. The boy was told that he would go to hell if he told anyone about what Garstka and he did, court documents indicate.

"I would have to say that this priest used his authority against the boy," Benjamin said. At one point, Benjamin said, Garstka told the boy: "I'm God."

Garstka also insisted that women were evil and that the boy should only have contact with his mother and sister.

At some point, the lawsuit indicates, Garstka told the boy "evil people were taking steps that resulted in his (Garstka's) having to leave the parish." Benjamin said at least one mother of another altar boy complained about the priest.

The Rev. Michael Minehan, chancellor of the Syracuse diocese, declined to comment on the lawsuit or discuss Garstka's career in the church. Garstka is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. If he followed a traditional path to the priesthood, Garstka would be be about 80 years old now.

Garstka, a Philadelphia native, was ordained in 1948 and assigned as an assistant pastor to St. Mary's Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Church in 1962. In 1967, that congregation merged with St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church into St. Mary of the Assumption Church. The new church is the one named in the suit.

In September 1964, he was re-assigned briefly to St. Stanislaus Church, also in Binghamton. Three months later, he was sent to a remote parish in Oneida County as an assistant pastor, published accounts indicate.

Moving a priest twice in one year is a sign that something was wrong, said Terry Dosh, a former priest who is now a writer in Minnesota.

Especially, he said, at a time when parishes were amply staffed with priests.

"It's a sure sign of trouble," Dosh said. "There's no reason why you'd move a man that often — unless he was in some kind of trouble."

While the statute of limitations has long since run out for a criminal prosecution or a traditional negligence lawsuit, Benjamin is basing this lawsuit on what he calls the fraudulent concealment of Garstka's criminal behavior by the defendants, he said. His client's case is made stronger by Bishop James M. Moynihan's refusal to release the names of priests within the diocese who have been accused of having sexual relationships with children. The alleged victim has suffered emotional damage, Benjamin said.

"As far as I'm concerned, the Diocese of Syracuse has stonewalled more than other dioceses," Benjamin said. This includes Rochester, where the names of priests who abused were made public this spring.

Research Librarian Ann Gismot contributed to this story.


Garstka's Career

* 1948-1953: Assistant pastor, Sacred Heart Church, Syracuse.

* 1953-1958: Assistant pastor, St. Ann's Church, Binghamton.

* 1958-1960: Assistant pastor, Blessed Sacrament Church, Johnson City.

* 1960: Assistant pastor, Holy Trinity Church, Utica.

* 1962: Assistant pastor, St. Mary's Church, Binghamton.

* 1964: Moved from St. Mary's in September to St. Stanislaus Church, Binghamton. In December, moved to St. Patrick's Church in Taberg, Oneida County.

* 1966: Named pastor at St. Stephen's Church, Marathon, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, Cincinnatus.

* 1971: Pastor at St. Stephen's Church in Syracuse.

Source: The Evening Press newspaper clips


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