21 Sue Diocese, Claim Sex Abuse
Ex-Mendham Priest at Heart of Cases
By Abbott Koloff
January 13, 2004
MORRISTOWN -- A group of 21 men, most saying they were sexually abused by a former Mendham priest, filed a lawsuit Monday in Superior Court against Bishop Frank Rodimer and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson, charging that church officials should have known about the abuse and contributed to it by failing to act.
Greg Gianforcaro, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, said 19 of his clients are victims of James T. Hanley and that most were abused while they were parishioners at St. Joseph's parish in Mendham. The diocese has previously settled two lawsuits involving allegations of abuse by Hanley, and church officials have said the former priest has admitted to abusing children.
All of the alleged abuse took place between 1968 and 1982, Gianforcaro said.
Hanley, a former pastor at St. Joseph's, was not named in the lawsuit because, according to Gianforcaro, he has been cooperating with plaintiffs. Gianforcaro said Hanley, who was removed from the priesthood last year, has admitted to sexually abusing about two dozen children, including many of his clients.
The lawsuit was announced during a news conference at Headquarters Plaza, with some of Hanley's alleged victims in attendance. The plaintiffs, who include the 21 alleged victims and five of their wives, were not named in court papers. But Gianforcaro acknowledged that one of them is the estate of a former Mendham resident who committed suicide last year -- James Kelly, who had become an outspoken victims' advocate and who had said he was abused by Hanley.
"It's a big day for all the Hanley victims," said Bill Crane, a former Mendham resident who now lives in Oregon and who is a plaintiff in the suit. "We are one step closer in seeking justice and restitution."
The suit also named two clergy members who allegedly abused two of Gianforcaro's clients. It named several other priests, including two who are dead, who allegedly knew something about sexual abuse but failed to act. The plaintiffs said they are seeking monetary damages but also want Paterson Diocese officials to take steps to help victims in other ways, such as monitoring Hanley and disclosing information in their files.
Paterson Diocese officials said Monday that they hadn't had a chance to see the complaint.
"We plan to defend this lawsuit vigorously," Marianna Thompson, a spokeswoman for Rodimer, said.
The suit named as defendants three Morris County parishes where Hanley served -- St. Joseph's, Our Lady of Good Counsel in Pequannock, and St. Christopher's in Parsippany. The Church of Holy Rosary in Dover also was named because that parish sponsored an event 26 years ago in Paterson at which a plaintiff in the lawsuit allegedly was abused by a Passaic County deacon.
Gianforcaro said the parishes were included for legal reasons, which he did not explain, adding that his clients don't want money from St. Joseph's and would drop the complaints against other churches if a settlement is reached with the diocese.
Gianforcaro has been talking about the possibility of a lawsuit for nearly two years and said the decision to file now was to stay within the statute of limitations, which allows lawsuits in sexual abuse cases to be filed within two years of plaintiffs remembering abuse. Gianforcaro said some of his clients had repressed memories of abuse for decades and others failed to realize they had been harmed until a scandal involving priests abusing children brought the subject into the open.
Ken Mullaney, attorney for the diocese, said he did not believe the lawsuit would hold up in court, partly because the statute of limitations has expired. He called Gianforcaro's argument, that his clients didn't recognize how much they had been harmed until recently, an "invalid position" that doesn't circumvent the statute.
Mullaney said Gianforcaro came to him in 2000 asking for money but has never provided specifics about the allegations other than a list of alleged victims' names.
Most of the abuse survivors who attended Monday's news conference had gone public with allegations about Hanley over the past couple of years -- after Mark Serrano, a former Mendham resident and now a victims' rights advocate, went public in early 2002 with allegations that he was abused by Hanley. Serrano, now a board member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, attended Monday's news conference but was not part of the suit. He settled a lawsuit against the diocese in the 1980s.
Church officials have said they allowed Hanley to work at a diocese parish for almost a year after Serrano went to them with his allegations in 1985. A few years later, Hanley was sent to work at an Albany, N.Y., hospital, Rodimer has said.
However, church officials maintain there is no evidence of sexual abuse by Hanley after they learned about the allegations. Hanley agreed in 2002 to be removed from the priesthood in a process called laicization, which was completed last year.
The lawsuit makes allegations of sexual abuse against two other clergy members -- Thomas Rainforth, a priest who worked in Mendham in the 1970s, and Carlos Guzman, a Passaic County deacon who, according to Gianforcaro, sexually abused a Dover man more than 25 years ago.
A diocese review board determined last year that an allegation against Rainforth did not constitute sexual abuse. Church officials allowed the priest to continue working at a Clifton parish.
Guzman, who had been working toward becoming ordained as a priest, has not been allowed to function as a deacon since allegations of abuse were made against him, Mullaney said. Church officials were unable to say Monday when they first heard about the allegations.
Roberto Acevedo of Dover said before Monday's news conference that he was raped by Guzman at a 1978 event in Paterson that was sponsored by Holy Rosary parish of Dover. He said he told a priest about it in 1996.
"His response was, 'Don't worry about him; they moved him somewhere else,'" Acevedo said.
Acevedo said he contacted SNAP and sought counseling in 2002 after reading about a victim's story in the Daily Record. He said he no longer goes to church.
"I feel I don't trust anyone (in the church)," he said.
The suit also names three other priests who allegedly knew something about abuse but failed to take action. Two are dead. The third, Louis Holterhoff, left the priesthood and now lives in southern New Jersey, according to church officials. Holterhoff, according to Gianforcaro, was an assistant to Hanley more than 20 years ago. The suit alleges that he knew or should have known Hanley was abusing children.
Holterhoff did not return a phone call Monday.
Crane said he remembers Holterhoff coming into a room in 1981 while he, at age 14, and another teenage boy were sitting with Hanley as a pornographic video played on the TV.
"There were pornographic magazines spread out on a table," Crane said. "He (Holterhoff) came into the room, picked something up off a desk, and left."
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