Former priest at Poughkeepsie’s St. Peter’s church accused of sexual abuse, faces charges

Poughkeepsie Journal [Poughkeepsie NY]

May 25, 2022

By Katelyn Cordero

Safety was not a concern when her son became an altar server at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Poughkeepsie.

In her mind, the church was a place where the 15-year-old would be guided spiritually and emotionally.

When the Rev. James Garisto took a special interest in her son, she hoped he would be a positive influence.

That was 2006. In the years since, the mother watched as her son fell down what she called a “horrific path” that included a 10-year battle with drug addiction that nearly led to the end of his life on more than one occasion.

The root of that trauma, the family says, is sexual abuse suffered through the relationship with Garisto, of which they say the church was aware.

Garisto served as priest at St. Peter’s from 1998 to 2014.

He was taken into custody on May 4 by Philadelphia police based on allegations of abuse against the then-teen, who is identified as Z.M. in court filings. The family has also launched a civil lawsuit against the Archdiocese of New York regarding Garisto’s alleged relationship with the Poughkeepsie teen.

The Poughkeepsie Journal is aware of Z.M.’s identity and that of his mother, though her identity is also being withheld in the interest of her son’s anonymity due to the nature of the alleged abuse.

On Wednesday Garisto will appear in Philadelphia County court for a preliminary hearing. He is facing charges of endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of minors, and indecent assault of a person less than 13 years of age.

This is the second arrest Garisto faced this year. In January he was charged with endangering the welfare of children, corruption of minors and indecent assault without consent, but the charges were withdrawn in March. Communications Director for the Philadelphia District Attorney Jane Roh said it will be decided on Wednesday if the new case will move forward in court.

The priest is facing criminal charges in Philadelphia, his home state and where some of the alleged abuse took place.

In this 2007 file photo, the Rev. James Garisto conducts mass at Our Lady of Rosary Chapel. Journal file.
In this 2007 file photo, the Rev. James Garisto conducts mass at Our Lady of Rosary Chapel. Journal file.

“You’re going to see that he has a new case and that the original case that he was charged with was withdrawn due to the statute of limitations,” Roh said. “However, another victim came forward and the allegations were within the statute of limitations so we were able charge him with a new case.”

In the civil suit, Z.M. alleges Garisto touched him inappropriately on several occasions between 2006 and 2010, starting when he was 15-years-old. He said the abuse took place on trips to properties owned by Garisto in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and at the church in Poughkeepsie.

“Our client saw something online about a previous arrest and he called my office. I encouraged him to go to the police and he gave a statement and, as a result, Garisto was arrested,” for a second time said Z.M.’s attorney, A.J. Thomson. “I believe (the civil lawsuit) will demonstrate that this man’s child sexual abuse history was well known to the archdiocese prior to him being placed at St. Peter’s… We will be able to establish that his history goes further back perhaps into the 70s and 80s when he was a member of a different order was and terminated under unknown circumstances and moved to a different state.”

Thomson said employees in the church were aware of allegations against Garisto and, in some instances, paid for travel and dining accommodations for the priest’s private trips with altar boys.

Garisto was ordained in 1977 and incardinated to the archdiocese in 1983. Prior to coming to St. Peter’s, he served on the faculty of St. Joseph by-the-Sea High School from 1990 to 1998, according to Catholic New York — a newspaper associated with the archdiocese.

Spokesperson for the Archdiocese of New York Joseph Zwilling said Garisto has been on leave and unable to act as a priest since August 2019, when the archdiocese received its first complaint against him.

“He has not served in any capacity since that time,” he said. “We also notified law enforcement here in New York about the allegation against him, and we will cooperate with any investigation undertaken by the authorities in New York or Pennsylvania.”

What is being alleged? 

Garisto is described in the suit as a “serial predator of boys in multiple states” who “trafficked his victims between the state of New York and properties that he owned in (Pennsylvania).” The complaint was filed in Philadelphia County Court and provided to the Journal by Thomson.   

While the lawsuit claims there is evidence of abuse pre-dating the 90s, it lays out a timeline of alleged interactions with Z.M. that begins in 2005:

  • 2005: Z.M. is hired by Garisto as an altar boy. The lawsuit claims Garisto instituted paid positions for altar servers in high school, something that wasn’t common in most parishes. The archdiocese did not answer questions regarding paid positions for altar servers. 
  • Z.M said Garisto began grooming him by providing him with money and taking him out to meals. Garisto also “ingratiated himself” with Z.M.’s divorced parents. 
  • Late 2006: Z.M. said Garisto sexually abused him for the first time in his parked car, touching him inappropriately after taking him for a meal in Poughkeepsie.
  • 2007-10:  Garisto repeated these acts dozens of times in the Poughkeepsie area, the suit said. it also said Garisto took Z.M. “at least” six times to his private properties where he sexually abused him both in the property and in a vehicle outside. 

The suit claims an employee of St. Peter’s parish knew of the trips and reimbursed Garisto for the expenses. In addition to the trips to his private property, the same employee arranged accommodations for Garisto and Z.M.’s travels to New York City and Massachusetts from parish funds where, the suit said, abuse also occurred. The suit claims the parish employee in charge of finances knew of his abuse and possibly other boys. 

The alleged abuse ended when Z.M. was 17-years-old the suit said. Afterward, it said, he suffered from depression and became addicted to heroin. He sought drug abuse counseling and attempted suicide on multiple occasions due to the “psychological torment, emotional pain and depression brought on by the abuse by Garisto,” the suit said. 

Effects of abuse 

On a trip to Disney World, Z.M.’s mom could feel the sadness emanating from her son. 

She could see it in his vacant stares while his siblings relished in the excitement of the amusement park. 

That period in Z.M.’s teenage life was a turning point, she said. It was during that time he transitioned onto a path that culminated in him failing to graduate high school.

“I saw this kid go from a straight-A student, always involved in school, would read everything to this kid with a vacant stare,” Ann said.  “I was just seeing the look, the sadness, and the depression. I kept checking in on him, but he would not share (what was going on).”

To cope with the trauma, the mother said Z.M. turned to heroin. 

“He held onto this secret for such an incredibly long time and the devastation that occurred within himself and our family as a whole is all because of this situation,” she said. “How does a 15-year-old kid cope with all of that?” 

The mom said it was devastating when her son realized he may have not been the only one who was allegedly abused by Garisto. Z.M. came forward when he read about the priest’s initial arrest online and accusations made by a former Staten Island teen.  

Last year, Ryan Barry pursued criminal and civil allegations against Garisto, claiming abuse between 1993 to 1998, when he was between the ages of 15 and 21.

In an interview with Staten Island Advance, Barry said he was groomed by Garisto initially until it escalated to sexual abuse. He said he was abused in his car, at the priest’s home and that Garisto would visit him at home in his capacity as a priest. 

Similarly to Z.M., Barry said he spiraled into drug addiction that took over his life, well after the abuse ended. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national organization fighting against child abuse, reported on the suit in 2022. An update on the civil suit was not available and attempts to reach Barry’s lawyers were unsuccessful.

“(Garisto) was one of those priests that was absolutely protected and shielded by the bishop and that simply because he was one of those charismatics types of neighborhood priests,” said Mike McDonnell, communications director of SNAP. “He was loved by his community, which really explains a lot.

“(Abusers) gain so much trust by families and are held on a pedestal and, really, if any child would ever try to come forward and explain that they were abused by a character like James Garisto, the immediate thought they would have is who is going to believe me, they love this guy.” 

Changes in law opens door 

In 2019, Pennsylvania amended Act 87 of its penal law, allowing more lenient regulations for victims of childhood sexual abuse to take legal action against alleged perpetrators. This change opened the doors for the two cases against Garisto, from Z.M. and Barry, to come forward.

Thomson said he is looking for Z.M.’s civil suit shed a light on a system of silence within the archdiocese he said allows for and covers up abuse. 

“Part of the reason why these statutes have been opened up with opportunity for lawsuits is to hold those accountable that should be held accountable to make sure that this culture of silence, acceptance, and encouragement ends,” Thomson said. “The trips that he went on with this kid were arraigned by parish staff members and reimbursed by parish staff members. This is indicative of the culture of acceptance and almost encouragement that has led this monumental scandal.” 

The civil suit is seeking a minimum of $50,000 for damages caused by the negligence of the archdiocese. More importantly, Thomson said he hopes the case will open the door for more victims to come forward. 

Archdiocese response to sex abuse

For Z.M.’s mom, the lawsuit is not so much about the money, as it is forcing the Catholic Church to revisit the way it handles cases of abuse.  

“As angry as I am at the actions of Garisto, I am more angry with the Catholic Church that allows this, moving these men from parish to parish without being advocates for these men to be jailed,” she said. “They move them and give them access to vulnerable kids who completely put their trust in a priest or a nun, and then the devastation that is cause as a result of that, that’s what I’m truly angry about.” 

When handling sexual abuse allegations, the archdiocese follows guidelines created by the Vatican in 2010.

On the archdiocese website there is a list of clergy members that have “been credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor.” Garisto is not amongst the 122 individuals listed. 

“The Catholic Church is desperately trying to create this image of an untroubled façade and it’s not surprising to me that he is not on that list,” McDonnell said. “It takes a criminal conviction to land on that list — not even just a criminal charge.”

McDonnell said the list should be threefold what it is, but because the church settles many cases in civil court, priests can be left considered free of wrongdoing if it is determined they did not violate Canon laws. 

According to the archdiocese website, allegations of abuse are handled by: 

  1. Preliminary procedures: The local diocese investigates allegations and determines if the case should be elevated to the investigating authority known as the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith. Allegations also should be reported to local authorities if necessary.  
  2. Penal process: The penal process includes a trial conducted before a church tribunal where the accused priest has the opportunity to respond to accusations, review evidence and present their own case. Decisions made in these trials by the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith are final. 
  3.  Referral  to the Pope: Grave cases where a criminal trial found the priest guilty are referred directly to the pope. In such cases, a dismissal will often be requested and issued.
  4. Disciplinary measures: Typically in cases where a priest admitted to a crime they will be prohibited from public ministry. The priest will resort to “a life of prayer and penance.” If they violate this decision they will be removed from the clergy.   

Zwilling did not respond to questions regarding Garisto’s history with the church. He said “the Archdiocese of New York takes seriously every allegation of abuse. However, we cannot comment on the specifics of this case while there are still active criminal and civil cases pending.” 

Thomson said he seeks to send a clear message to the church. 

“He went from school to school, to parish and he went from one state to another,” he said. “This guy is a predator and an absolute monster.

“If anybody has any information, even if it’s older than they think (the statute of limitations allows), we will leave no stone unturned to hold accountable, not even just Garisto, but any staff member that was aware of what was happening,” he added. “Because there’s never only one, there’s always more than one.” 

Katelyn Cordero is the education reporter for the Poughkeepsie Journal:; Twitter: @KatelynCordero.