Law firm adds 9 N.J. priests to list of accused abusers, as deadline nears in diocese’s bankruptcy case

CAMDEN (NJ) [New Jersey]

June 21, 2021

By Kelly Heyboer

Anyone who was sexually abused by a Catholic priest has less than two weeks to file a claim before a deadline set in the Diocese of Camden’s bankruptcy case, attorneys said as they added nine new names to the list of accused priests.

The diocese — which includes parishes in Atlantic, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties — filed for bankruptcy last fall after church officials said its finances were overwhelmed by clergy sexual abuse settlements and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A bankruptcy judge set a June 30 deadline for those owed money to file claims against the diocese. That has prompted attorneys to call on anyone sexually abused by a clergy member tied to the Diocese of Camden to file a lawsuit quickly, or risk missing out on a settlement through the bankruptcy court.

“We need to sound the alarm about the clock ticking and the time running short for any survivor to come forward and make a claim for harm done and for sexual abuse by anyone in the Diocese of Camden,” Jeff Anderson, an attorney whose firm represents 49 alleged victims in the diocese, said in a press conference Thursday.

Anderson highlighted 10 priests with ties to the Diocese of Camden who were recently named in court papers filed by alleged victims who claim they are owed settlement money as part of the bankruptcy case.

The accused priests are: Rev. Jerome Prisco; Rev. Joseph O’Connell; Rev. John O’Brien; Rev. Kenneth Johnston; Rev. Robert Smaldore; Rev. Leon Winowicz; Rev. Rocco Continillo; Rev. David Budney; Rev. Jesus Danilo Giraldo; and Rev. Roger A. Sullivan.

Johnston was previously named in a 2020 sexual abuse lawsuit, but the other nine priests are newly-released names that may not be publicly known as alleged abusers, the attorney said.

Most of the priests are dead, Anderson said. Only Giraldo and Sullivan are believed to be alive, though the law firm was unsure of where they are living or working. (An NJ Advance Media attempt to reach a Rev. Jesus Danilo Giraldo listed as living in Puerto Rico were unsuccessful.)

A spokesman for the Diocese of Camden did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

The 10 priests are accused of sexual abuse in incidents from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s, Anderson said. They worked in Camden, Collingswood, Hammonton, Pennsauken, Waterford, Cherry Hill, Laurel Springs and Carney’s Point. He did not disclose the specific allegations against each priest or who made them.

None of the 10 priests are on the list of 56 “credibly accused” clergy members released by the Diocese of Camden in 2019. Those names included priests involved in cases where the church had determined it was likely abuse occurred.

James Reuter, a Camden native who said he was sexually abused in the diocese, was among the alleged victims who appeared at the press conference and urged other victims to come forward before the bankruptcy court deadline.

“There may be others like me who have not yet identified or given themselves permission to accept the facts and reality of being abused. That’s a hard permission to accept,” said Reuter, 70.

He filed his lawsuit last year alleging he was abused by two New Jersey priests, the Rev. Walter T. Reilly and the Rev. Francis J. McLaughlin. Both priests died years ago and are on the Diocese of Camden’s list of credibly accused abusers.

It took Reuter more than 50 years to publicly admit he was abused, which his wife and family did not know about, he said. He is among the creditors listed in the Diocese of Camden bankruptcy as he awaits a financial settlement.

Though Reuter chose to be publicly named in his lawsuit, many victims have filed lawsuits as John Doe or Jane Doe to remain anonymous in court papers, attorneys said.

The Diocese of Camden’s bankruptcy filing has complicated the timeline New Jersey lawmakers put in place when they passed a law lifting the statute of limitations to allow sexual abuse victims to file civil lawsuits against institutions, including the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America and other groups.

Under New Jersey’s law, anyone can file a sexual abuse lawsuit during a two-year window — from Dec. 1, 2019, to Nov. 30, 2021 — no matter how long ago the alleged abuse happened.

The law prompted a flood of lawsuits against New Jersey’s Catholic dioceses. The dioceses also set up the New Jersey Independent Victims Compensation Fund, a process in which victims could apply for settlements funded by the Catholic Church outside the court system.

New Jersey’s other four dioceses — the Archdiocese of Newark and the dioceses of Metuchen, Paterson and Trenton — are all facing the same financial problems brought on by the pandemic and the sexual abuse lawsuits. But none have indicated they are considering filing for bankruptcy, as Camden and several nearby dioceses in New York have done in recent years.

Alleged victims in the other four New Jersey dioceses still have until Nov. 30 to file civil lawsuits, according to the state law.

Diocese of Camden officials said they want to be fair to sexual abuse victims seeking settlements during the bankruptcy proceedings. But attempts at a “good faith” mediation with a committee representing victims and their attorneys did not go well, diocese officials said.

“The diocese wants to continue to pay survivors rather than lawyers and other professional advisors,” the Diocese of Camden said in a statement in January, noting the average victim’s settlement claim is about $115,000.

“Plaintiffs’ lawyers have been advertising extensively so any claimant who wishes to come forward is well-aware of the Chapter 11 process and should be given that opportunity now. Instead of encouraging people to come forward, plaintiffs’ lawyers seem to want to elongate the process and see more money dissipated on wrangling,” the statement said.

Since 1992, the Diocese of Camden has settled 170 claims and paid over $20 million to victims, church officials said. It has also paid more than $950,000 for “therapeutic care” for victims.

When it filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year, the diocese was facing more than 50 additional lawsuits and an unknown number of additional claims through the New Jersey Independent Victims Compensation Fund. It is unclear how many additional claims and lawsuits have been filed since then.

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Kelly Heyboer may be reached at