A Meeting on High

By Makeba Scott Hunter
Herald News (Passaic County, NJ)
September 1, 2005

Steve Rabi had a score to settle with the bishop of Paterson and he flew 2,000 miles from New Mexico to New Jersey last week to do so.

Prior to his meeting with Paterson Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli last Friday morning, the 57-year-old New Mexico resident was gearing up for a showdown that had been decades in the making.

A victim of alleged priest sex abuse during the 1950s and 1960s, Rabi recently reached an out-of-court settlement with the Paterson Diocese over allegations that he was abused by two priests, Joseph W. Molloy and Francis X. Dennehy, at St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in Passaic. Both priests are now deceased.

In addition to an undisclosed amount of money and four years of paid counseling, Rabi also received an invitation to meet one-on-one with the bishop as part of the settlement. Serratelli was not the bishop when the abuse allegedly occurred, but he had been installed by the time of the settlements. He has met with several of those who claim they were victimized, to hear what they have to say.

To Rabi, that was the coup-de-grace, to finally be able to say, face-to-face, unequivocally, without interruption, what he really felt about the abuse he says he endured and the institution that he feels covered it up for decades.

Rabi felt so passionately about speaking with the bishop that he paid his own round-trip airfare for a meeting that had the potential to last only 15 minutes. Not for his own benefit, Rabi said, but for the benefit of other victims who may believe they were the only ones.

"This man needs to know exactly what he is doing to his 'flock.' He is a 'newbie bishop' and frankly, money does not promote healing of clergy sex abuse," an emotional Rabi wrote to the Herald News on July 19. "Serratelli continues to pay off victims (the diocese reached a $5 million settlement with 27 alleged victims of clergy sex abuse in February) rather than opening the files of priests, religious, and employees who have been accused of impropriety and deviant behavior. My meeting with him ... will provide him with the knowledge he needs."

Ironically, when Rabi stepped out of his two-hour meeting with the bishop, he seemed cautiously pleased, almost as though he had found an old friend.

"On a lot of levels, we're peers," Rabi said with a half-smile as he exited the meeting. "We both grew up in similar environs, you know. He's from Newark and I'm from Passaic. There's only four years separating us in age.

"He was very candid about how he feels there is a need for the church to get realistic about how they're treating, and how they are listening to, victims and survivors of clergy sex abuse."

The diocese had no comment on the bishop's meeting with Rabi, saying that it was pastoral and, therefore, private. Diocesan lawyer Ken Mullaney, reached by phone, also declined to comment.

Rabi is not the only settlement recipient to meet with Serratelli and describe a reconciling experience. When Johnny Vega met with Serratelli in April, he also left with a positive impression.

"He really wanted to listen to what I had to say," Vega reported after his meeting. "And he did, he did listen. He seemed genuine about everything. He's pretty much taking the approach that it's not a priestly thing, you know, when a priest does what he does as far as harming children."

Greater understanding

This bishop seems to understand something about dealing with clergy abuse victims that some say his predecessor, Bishop Frank J. Rodimer, and other church leaders around the nation failed to grasp. He seems empathetic and acknowledges the victim's perspective that it's not about the money or bringing down the church, but rather is a showing of respect for their pain and an admission of church wrongdoing.

But many times, litigation and legal maneuvering distract from those points. Legally, the church did not admit to any wrongdoing in Rabi's settlement or the February settlement.

"I think the 'me versus them' mentality was established very early in the proceedings," Rabi said of his yearlong civil suit. He said the church used "hardball tactics and lip service" during his case.

"It's my opinion that the diocesan attorney doesn't really agree that there are cases of abuse," said Rabi. "And even if there are, (he feels that) all we're looking for is money and we're not concerned with counseling, therapy and what have you. We're just out for the bucks and nothing could be more inaccurate."

Other plaintiffs in clergy abuse cases have voiced similar complaints.

But with a face-to-face meeting, with no cameras or press or lawyers present, two men spoke openly about the issue that plays an overarching role in both of their lives. After meeting with Serratelli, Rabi said he realized that, after a year of being on opposing legal sides, he and the bishop were not really opponents at all.

"This bishop said the only person who gets hurt in litigation is everyone," said Rabi. "And that it's not the way to go because the church looks like the bad guy, the victim gets revictimized and the only ones that are getting anywhere are the attorneys, quite frankly."

Now, Rabi said, he's ready to try to move on from this chapter in his life, which, for close to 50 years, had burdened him with anger, self-esteem issues and problems dealing with authority figures.

"There's been relief through this meeting in that there is another chapter in my healing recovery," Rabi said, "another step forward, that's been made so right."


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