Sex Abuse Suit Claims Coverup by Bishops
By Maureen Graham and Larry Lewis
The 275-page compilation of abuse allegations, filed in Superior Court in Atlantic City, portrays the Camden diocese as a criminal racketeering enterprise and a haven for pedophile priests.
Camden Bishop James J. McHugh yesterday rejected the lawsuit, filed by a South Jersey lawyer who has negotiated settlements of several other sexual abuse cases with the Camden Diocese. Bishop McHugh said such claims hurt the priesthood and the church.
"We have no fear of the truth. These charges are intended to create
the impression that our priests are immoral and dangerous," Bishop
McHugh said. "The impression is necessary so that a twisted legal
theory can be asserted and the diocese will be forced to pay the claimants
The suit, the first to make such sweeping accusations, contends that priests, former priests, a nun, and a church volunteer were involved in incidents of child sexual abuse as early as the founding of the diocese in 1937.
It alleges assaults on 34 young church members who now live in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut and Arizona.
Assaults by priests on young children are more pervasive in Camden than in other dioceses, the document contends, in part because local church leaders placed offending priests in high-ranking positions in the Camden hierarchy.
By doing this, the suit claims, the diocese turned a blind eye to criminal activity of trusted priests and officials.
As an example, the suit contends that the Rev. James P. McIntyre, the Camden Diocese's current director of priest personnel, sexually abused two Cherry Hill boys between 1963 and 1968. In his diocesan position, Father McIntyre reviews complaints of sexual abuse by Camden priests.
Father McIntyre did not respond yesterday to repeated requests for comment.
The class-action suit is, at this point, an uncorroborated accusation. Some of its specific complaints were among those filed previously by Stephen Rubino, a South Jersey lawyer who has negotiated settlements of sexual abuse cases with the Camden Diocese for several million dollars. Rubino also represented Steven Cook in a 1993 claim that he had been sexually abused by Chicago's archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and later withdrew the suit after Cook said his memory might be faulty.
The Bernardin case caused a controversy over the reliability of repressed memory, in which analysts say therapy can help patients remember long-buried traumas, particularly those involving sex abuse.
Rubino said information in the cases contained in the broad class-action suit against the church came through a process called delayed discovery, in which victims suppress hurts endured as children until, as adults, they must reveal the pain to another person.
Of the 30 Camden priests accused in yesterday's lawsuit, five have criminal records for sex offenses and nine have been charged civilly in past cases and have settled claims out of court, with payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars by the Camden Diocese. The Inquirer is withholding the identity of six priests against whom accusations were made only by anonymous plaintiffs.
The priests described as "perpetrators" yesterday are identified as being from New Jersey and Florida.
The suit is divided into two parts. The first is a 33-page introduction that sketches the basis of a class action - that is, sex abuse said to date to 1937. The second part lists 21 new cases of purported sex abuse from 1961 until 1994.
The suit contends that leaders of the Catholic Church, including the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops in Washington, engaged in a coverup in order to protect contributions from members to the church.
As its legal basis, the suit invokes New Jersey's Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and seeks damages from the estates of bishops long-dead.
In addition to the Camden Diocese, defendants include 11 parish churches; Catholic Charities; the bishop of Providence, R.I.; and the Military Vicariate, the church's archdiocese for the armed forces.
It names Bishop McHugh as a defendant and contends that through his lack of supervision illegal sexual abuse by priests was permitted to continue to the present.
The Camden bishop denied the allegation and said policies had become more strict in recent years.
Until recently, he said, "no one realized we were dealing with a deep pathology. We looked at it as a moral failing. We insisted the priest go to confession. But, just as with alcoholism, you cannot say: 'Don't do it any more.' You must go deeply into the human dimension. This is not something corrected simply by making a (religious) retreat."
A spokesman for the Providence Diocese also disputed the suit. "As I understand it, he's claiming a massive coverup and conspiracy by the diocese. That's absurd and without any foundation," said William Halpin, the spokesman.
The suit asks for an undisclosed amount of money in triple damages, and other remedies.
Since 1990, the Camden diocese has paid over $3 million in claims to people who contended they had been sexually abused by priests, The Inquirer reported in January. Bishop McHugh acknowledged yesterday the diocese had settled some cases. He declined to say how much was paid.
"I was certain in some of those cases there was a valid claim," Bishop McHugh said.
Since the most recent settlement in October 1993, Bishop McHugh has said he would avoid out-of-court settlements and instead allow cases to go to trial.
Among remedies sought in the suit brought yesterday is "a national registry of priest child molesters." Such a list, similar to that mandated under New Jersey's new "Megan's law," is necessary, the suit says, because clerics who engage in pedophilia are particularly dangerous.
One priest violently raped a 6-year-old girl on church grounds in 1961, the suit alleges. Another priest broke the confidential seal of confession to obtain sexual gratification, it contends.
A priestly collar affords immediate credibility among the faithful; thus, the church has a particular duty to ensure its priests are above reproach, the suit says.
To make this point, Rubino opened the document with a quote from the Catechism of the Council of Trent, describing the regard in which Catholics should hold their priests:
". . . It is evident that no nobler function than theirs can be imagined. Justly therefore are they called not only Angels, but even gods because of the fact that they exercise in our midst the power and prerogatives of the immortal God. . . . In all ages priests have been held in the highest honor; yet the priests of the New Testament far exceed all others."
In singling out the Camden Diocese, the suit contends its hierarchy has known about the problem of pedophile priests for more than half a century.
Rubino traced the appointments of priests who were supposed child abusers and contended in the lawsuit that the priests had been transferred from parish to parish and permitted, time and again, to assault children.
Pedophilia in the Camden Diocese can be traced back to 1937, the suit claims, when priests were first appointed under Bishop Bartholomew J. Eustace, who governed the diocese until 1953.
"As was the custom, perpetrators would arrange their living quarters with other perpetrators in order to trade victims or to maintain the secrecy of their criminal behavior," the suit said.
Moreover, the suit contends, known sexual deviants were placed in positions of authority.
"In order to accomplish the goals of the criminal conspiracy, which included providing a continuous source of children and teenagers as altar boys and rectory workers, certain perpetrators and co-conspirators needed to be ensconced in the hierarchy. . . ."
The lawsuit listed the Rev. Dennis J. Rigney, once the diocesan advocate, and his brother, the Rev. Philip T. Rigney, once the director of vocations, as examples.
"By 1953 . . . Philip Rigney had laid the groundwork . . . to continue and foster its silent tolerance for the sexual exploitation of children," the suit said of the hierarchy.
Father Dennis Rigney is deceased. Father Philip Rigney, now living in Florida, did not respond to a request for an interview or comment.
The suit said a hierarchical matrix remained unchanged until 1963, when the suit portrayed a relationship between the Rev. Joseph F. McGarvey and the Rev. William O'Connell.
Father O'Connell, 72, is a retired Rhode Island priest currently in a New Jersey jail on charges of sexual contact with minors in Cape May County. He has not entered a plea in that case. In 1986, he served one year of a five- year prison term in Rhode Island after pleading no contest to charges of sexual assault.
Father McGarvey is on leave of absence from St. Maria Goretti parish in Runnemede after the diocese reached an out-of-court settlement in 1992 following sexual abuse allegations against him. Officials at St. Maria Goretti said yesterday that they had no idea how to reach Father McGarvey.
The lawsuit contains, as an exhibit, a letter said to have been written by Father McGarvey to Father O'Connell on St. Mary Magdalen Rectory stationery Dec. 1, 1969.
"Terry is in the next office doing his homework," it said. "He's a great guy and I think an awful lot of him. Don't ever try to win his affections away from me or I'll stab you to death (vicious triangle stuff) because I get real jealous as you know. When he gets his license in June he said we would take a trip somewhere. WOW."
Later in the two-page letter, the writer talks about a party with three other priests:
"I got bombed last nite. Had three priests here - curates I made friends with. One of them was a sem in Gloucester who is now Director of Vocations. He is crazy as hell but a neat guy. He brought stag movies with him but the only trouble was I got bombed and missed most of them. He stayed overnight. What a nite. I was no good all day. He gave my name to the bishop who is now forming a Diocesan Vocation Board and he asked me to go around with him on some of his visits to the seminaries to see the guys. What an opportunity. I hope the Bishop appoints me. You would really like him. I think you and I like the same type of guys."
Bishop McHugh said he could not discuss the letter or any specifics in the lawsuit.
Last July, Father O'Connell was arrested and charged in Cape May with taking lewd pictures of boys. Police said they found in Father O'Connell's home a guest book from a Rhode Island resort.
On three occasions during the 1970s and 1980s, Father McGarvey and Father O'Connell transported children from parishes in Runnemede and Millville, N.J., to Father O'Connell's summer residence, the suit contends.
Even after Bishop McHugh learned of complaints against Father McGarvey, the bishop has allowed him to continue serving as a priest, the lawsuit contends.
Allowing known pedophiles to continue priestly duties is not unusual, the suit contends.
In support of his contention that the church put secrecy over concern for victims of abuse, Rubino cited minutes from "a highly confidential conference" held in 1985 in Collegeville, Minn., at which, the suit said, a representative of the Vatican presented a report on the issue of pedophilia.
According to the suit, the report contained this warning: "The national press has an active interest in items discussed herein and, therefore, an abundance of caution is required. Over the last two weeks there has been national press coverage of the problem and that coverage is increasing. Security for the entire Project is extremely important."
Of the accusations first made public in the suit yesterday, the most significant was against Father McIntyre, who holds a key position in the diocese.
The suit contended that Father McIntyre and two other priests, Father Dennis Rigney and the Rev. Francis Flemming, two brothers who were members of St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church in Cherry Hill, between 1963 and 1968.
In 1994, the Smith brothers went to the Camden Diocese to report delayed recollections of the abuse and were rebuffed by Bishop McHugh, the suit says.
Another priest newly accused in the suit is Msgr. Augustine Seidenberg of Ocean City, who was accused of having molested five girls, including Diane Fetters-Murphy, a named plaintiff. Msgr. Seidenberg was traveling and could not be reached, a fellow priest at his rectory said yesterday.
Several accusations were attributed to complainants whose identities were not included in the suit and who were said to have been identified privately to the Camden diocese.
The suit also includes new charges against the Rev. Joseph Shannon, a Camden priest who was part of the $3.2 million settlement.
Stephen Johnson, then of Camden, claimed in the suit that he was abused by Father Shannon in 1971. The man, who was a minor at the time of the alleged criminal sexual contact, bought pornographic material for Father Shannon, the suit claims. Father Shannon could not be reached for comment.
Officials in Atlantic City, where the suit was filed, said it could be at least a year before the civil suit comes to trial.
"This is undoubtedly a moment of pain and suffering for all our
priests and our faithful people," Bishop McHugh said. "But it
is also a time when we can come together in prayerful, mutual support."
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