Tollner seeks info from Diocese on abuse he says he suffered

Altamont Enterprise [Altamont NY]

June 15, 2021

Albany County – Rensselaerville resident Richard Tollner has filed a legal petition against the Diocese of Albany, relating to an effort to secure justice against a Catholic priest whom Tollner says sexually abused him when he was a teenage prep-school student in Nassau County. 

The petition for pre-action discovery, filed on May 28, would allow Tollner and his attorneys to acquire information from the Diocese of Albany that would help them to “fully evaluate [Tollner’s] claims” against the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which oversaw the prep school, St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary, where Tollner says he was sexually assaulted a number of times by Alan Placa in the 1970s.

Tollner declined to answer Enterprise questions about the petition this week on the advice of his attorneys, a team at Merson Law, who also declined to answer Enterprise questions. 

“Sex abuse murders your soul,” Tollner said in an Enterprise podcast in 2018. He described then the difficulty in processing the abuse personally, and said the Catholic Church gave him the run-around in a dubious canonical trial — essentially, an investigation and trial conducted by and within the Catholic Church — that ultimately found Placa not guilty of abuse claims made against him by Tollner and others.   

The earlier trial was requested by Tollner and conducted by the Diocese of Albany. Tollner’s current petition aims to uncover the findings of the earlier investigation, along with anything else that may be relevant to Tollner’s case, according to court documents.

Tollner told The Enterprise in 2018 that the investigation into Placa was supposed to take six weeks, according to the Catholic Church, but ultimately took three years, and that throughout the process the church kept delaying hearings and changing appointment locations, and had neglected to call certain witnesses, raising questions about the legitimacy of its determination.

Existing in contrast to the church’s own determination of Placa’s innocence in 2009 is a report issued by a Suffolk County Supreme Court Grand Jury, which found that “priests assigned to and working in the Diocese of Rockville Centre,” including Placa (who, according to The New York Times, is identified in the report as “Priest F”), had committed sex crimes. 

“These criminal acts included, but were not limited to, Rape, Sodomy, Sexual Abuse, Endangering the Welfare of a Child and Use of a Child in a Sexual Performance,” the report states. 

 The report details several instances in which Placa repeatedly groped young male students and church assistants, once in a funeral home shortly after a victim’s father had died.

“The tragic death of a victim’s father led, finally, to the end of Priest F’s sexual abuse of him,” the report states. “At the funeral home, Priest F approached the boy, moving close to him. As he moved his hand towards his genitals, the boy told Priest F, ‘Don’t ever fucking touch me again or I’ll kill you.’ This event was witnessed by another boy who saw the abusive conduct by Priest F and heard the response to it.”

Tollner told The Enterprise in 2018 that Placa was the one who informed him when his father had died in a car crash, and how an incident at his father’s wake culminated in a confrontation similar to that described in the report.

At the wake, Tollner told The Enterprise, he overheard his mother ask Placa to comfort him, at which point Tollner “realized … that his father was no longer around to take care of him, and that he needed to take care of himself.”

Tollner said that he then waited outside the funeral home and, as Placa walked out, confronted the priest, saying what was reported by the grand jury.

Tollner is currently suing Placa and the Diocese of Rockville Centre through the Nassau County Supreme Court, but a bankruptcy filing by the Diocese has stayed legal actions by Tollner and others. 

Several dioceses across the country have filed for bankruptcy in recent years, The New York Times reports, amid mounting lawsuits pertaining to sexual abuse.

Richard Tollner of Rensselaerville spoke in 2018 of how his soul was seared as he suffered sexual abuse as a teenager at the hands of a priest he had trusted. Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer.
Richard Tollner of Rensselaerville spoke in 2018 of how his soul was seared as he suffered sexual abuse as a teenager at the hands of a priest he had trusted. Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer.

Victims young and old

Tollner’s ability to take legal action against the Catholic Church so long after he was abused rests on a law he helped lobby into existence. 

The Child Victims Act, signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2019, granted a window in which survivors of sexual abuse otherwise barred by a statute of limitations could file claims against their abusers. The deadline, which had been extended due to the coronavirus pandemic, is currently Aug. 14, 2021. 

Against the Diocese of Albany alone, there are 165 motions related to the Child Victims Act — with most appearing to involve different claimants — according to an online records search through the Albany County Clerk’s Office.

Before the law was passed, victims of childhood sexual abuse were barred from making civil claims against their abuser once a certain number of years elapsed — five, at most — since the victim turned 18, according to the New York City Bar website. The Child Victims Act extended the statute of limitations so that a victim has until he or she turns 55 to file a civil claim. 

The act also granted a lookback period in which anyone could file a civil claim, regardless of their age and the time of the crime, and made it possible to name an institution relevant to the abuse in the claim — for example, a diocese responsible for an abusive priest. 

The Catholic Church appears to have suffered financial losses since the passage of the law, which increased the already high number of people filing sexual assault claims against its priests and other officials, reflected in the number of dioceses filing for bankruptcy in recent years. 

Though this data was extracted before the law was passed, a report by the Church-backed National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People states that the Church spent more than $1 billion in sex abuse-related costs between 2014 and 2019. 

Costs include: settlements, “other payments” to victims, support for offenders, attorneys’ fees, and “other costs.”

The report suggests that only a miniscule proportion of cases investigated are “obviously false,” and that many are simply “unable to be proven” because some abusers have since died or gone into hiding.

According to the website Bishop Accountability, a watchdog of the Catholic Church and its sex crimes, four of New York’s eight dioceses have filed for bankruptcy since the passage of the law. 

Some filers, like Tollner, suggest that diocese bankruptcies are an effort to protect funding, and that the bankruptcies are more voluntary than they appear.

When asked about the Albany County lawsuits, Mary DeTurris Proust, the director of communications for the Diocese of Albany, told The Enterprise in a statement, “We admire the bravery of those who have come forward to share their stories of betrayal and pain to help other survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Our first concern is for survivors, who have borne their scars for many decades, often in silence. We will continue to accompany survivors on their journey toward healing, to support them and to assist them in any way we can.”

States across the country have been passing similar measures for the benefit of sex-abuse victims, and organizations besides the Catholic Church have been feeling their effects. The Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy last year, citing sexual-assault claims. At least six people have filed Child Victims Act-related motions against the Boy Scouts in Albany County. 

And, just last week, the New York State Senate passed another law related to sex crimes — the Adults Survivors Act — that would enable those who were adults when they were sexually abused to come forward with civil claims.

In his 2018 interview with The Enterprise, Tollner ascribed at least some of his determination in lobbying for the Child Victims Act to the sense of abandonment he felt after reporting his own story of sexual abuse to church officials, who did nothing until he requested a trial, he said.

Tollner said that, after his canonical trial concluded, “[The Church] never even told me what the decision was. And when I asked for it, they said: Call the other diocese. And when I contacted the other diocese where the abuse had taken place, they said: Call Albany, New York. So they’ve never taken responsibility.”

And just before Tollner’s Enterprise interview took place, Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan reportedly told Governor Andrew Cuomo that the “lookback” window in the yet-to-be-adopted Child Victims Act would be “toxic” and “strangling” for the Church. 

It’s that kind of messaging that Tollner said keeps victims quiet for so long, necessitating a longer statute of limitations.

“With children, it’s not like an attack,” Tollner said. “It’s more like grooming that child for a relationship, so they do not realize [the abuse] due to the immaturity and the trust in the person.”

In his own case, Tollner said it wasn’t until he was in his 20s that he was able to let go of the guilt. 

“A lot of victims don’t even realize it was criminal until years, decades later when they realize, ‘Oh, my gosh, that was not only wrong but it was criminal,’” Tollner said.

Attorney Jerry Kristal, who advocated for sexual abuse victims with the group Lawyers Helping Survivors of Child Sex Abuse, told The Enterprise the same thing in 2018, highlighting the the intimacy and trust that often underlies the abuse.

“Let’s assume that you’re a 9-year-old boy being anally raped by a priest. It’s not only by an adult, but a trusted adult, and an adult supposedly speaking for God,” Kristal said.

Children think no one will believe them, Kristal said, and in some cases, they might believe that their parents will believe them and harm the priest.

A secret like abuse, he said, is a “psychological trauma of the deepest possible proportions.”