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  Camden Diocese Agrees to Settle Sex Abuse Lawsuit for $880,000

By Mary Jo Patterson
Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey)
March 14, 2003

After spending nine years fighting claims that some of its priests had sexually abused children, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden announced yesterday that it would pay 23 plaintiffs $880,000 to end the case.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs accused 15 priests and numerous church officials of tolerating and hiding widespread child sex abuse within the diocese between 1961 and 1985.

During the past year, seven of the plaintiffs tried to convince a Superior Court judge that they had legally acceptable reasons to delay filing their civil action so long. But none of them succeeded and there was no sign the remaining plaintiffs would fare better.

"I am hopeful that this reconciliation will speed the process of healing for those who have been harmed in any way," Camden Bishop Nicholas DeMarzio said in announcing the settlement.

The award - which includes $300,000 to be paid to the plaintiffs' attorneys for reimbursement of out-of-pocket costs - paled in comparison to the millions of dollars in damages the plaintiffs originally sought.

Whether it was also less than the amount paid to the church's lawyers is not known. Andrew Walton, spokesman for the Camden Diocese, said he did not know what the defense had cost.

In any event, he said, the settlement was motivated by the bishop's desire to provide outreach to victims.

"(Bishop DeMarzio) believes the courtroom is not the best place for a pastoral response to victims," Walton said, adding that DeMarzio has now invited the plaintiffs to meet with him personally.

Settlement talks were initiated by the church about a month ago, both sides said yesterday. The last time the parties were in court was in January.

Stephen Rubino, the Margate attorney whose firm represented the 23 plaintiffs, said his clients had "mixed feelings" about the way the case ended.

"The tragedy is that, after investing all that energy over a period of nine years, that they were not able to try their case on their merits," said Rubino, whose practice specializes in clergy sex abuse.

On the other hand, he said, the settlement does not forbid them from talking about their experiences, and some of the plaintiffs are certain to become activists. "Their goal of bringing this to light - to the Legislature, law enforcement, and the media - have been achieved," Rubino said.

During the first eight years of the case, the lawsuit proceeded quietly with next to no press coverage. Then, early last year, it exploded into view just a few months after the church sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston.

Last April, reporters crowded into the courtroom of Judge John G. Himmelberg Jr. in Atlantic City to cover the hearings of two of the plaintiffs, brothers Robert and Philip Young. Their testimony, under bruising cross examination from defense lawyers, proved sensational.

The men, in their late 30s, wept on the stand and fought to regain their composure while describing how Monsignor Philip Rigney began groping them at night, during overnights at the rectory, starting when they were 9 and 12 years old.

The Young brothers maintained that they waited more than a decade to sue the church because they did not comprehend how damaged the experience had left them until then.

Of the other 14 priests who were accused of sexual abuse, only nine are living. All retained their own counsel in the lawsuit, said Walton, the diocesan spokesman.

Camden church officials took steps in 2002 to clarify diocesan policy on protecting children from sexual abuse.

They also formed a support group for victims of clergy sexual abuse, which began meeting last month.

In the Legislature, meanwhile, bills have been introduced to repeal the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse, and to repeal the so-called "doctrine of charitable immunity" to allow leaders of churches and other charities to be sued for negligently supervising sex abusers.

 
 

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