Times Union [Albany NY]
July 5, 2022
By Brendan J. Lyons
Settlement, involving former priest who was an alleged serial child sex abuser, was reached as diocese warned victim it would file for bankruptcy
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany recently paid $750,000 to a 47-year-old Saratoga County man who was allegedly sexually abused as a child by a former priest, marking the organization’s first settlement in the hundreds of pending lawsuits that were filed under New York’s Child Victims Act.
The unannounced settlement was reached in early June during negotiations in which the diocese’s attorney, Michael L. Costello, had warned the alleged victim, Stephen J. Mittler, that if his case remained on track for its July 25 trial date the diocese would file for bankruptcy before a jury was picked, according to Matthew J. Kelly, Mittler’s attorney.
“Whether that was hyperbole or truth, my client opted to settle to avoid waiting for the bankruptcy to resolve itself, which could take years,” Kelly said. “Of course, there was no way for my client to determine whether the diocese would proceed to file for bankruptcy to prevent him from getting his case in front of a jury. He opted to resolve it so he did not face that possibility.”
There was no confidentiality agreement as part of the settlement but the diocese did not announce the resolution of Mittler’s case. A week ago, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger proposed a court-supervised mediation plan to compensate the roughly 400 alleged victims of sexual abuse who have claims pending against the diocese.
The bishop’s proposal, which must be approved by a state Supreme Court justice, would seek to “maximize the monetary recovery for victim/survivors on a fair and equitable basis and to accelerate the payments,” according to a release distributed to dozens of attorneys on behalf of the diocese by Costello, the diocese’s longtime attorney.
“The diocese seeks to avoid the costly expenses and prolonged delays that would otherwise be associated with continued litigation with plaintiffs and their counsel and insurers and their counsel or a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization case,” the statement reads.
Mittler’s lawsuit was filed against the diocese and 73-year-old Mark A. Haight, of Schenectady, a former priest who was ordained in 1976 and stands accused of sexually abusing boys for more than a decade. Haight, who will pay an additional $2,000 to Mittler under the settlement, was shuffled through parishes and schools before his final post at Glens Falls Hospital. Abuse allegations surfaced at nearly every assignment; the church’s response was to keep moving Haight rather than contacting police or terminating him.
Haight was removed around 1997 from his post at Glens Falls Hospital, where he had worked for nearly seven years without the diocese informing hospital officials of his history. Haight resigned from the priesthood that year, not long after the diocese paid two settlements to his victims. One of the payments included $997,500 made to a man who said he had been abused by the priest as a teenager in the 1970s and ’80s.
Records disclosed by the diocese during the pre-trial discovery phase of Mittler’s case indicate former Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, who also stands accused of sexually abusing children, had twice sent Haight to treatment programs at facilities used by the Catholic church to treat sexually abusive clergy: House of Affirmation in California in 1985 and Servants of the Paraclete in New Mexico in 1989.
Diocesan officials, including Hubbard, claimed two decades ago that Haight was working at St. Joseph’s Church in Scotia when the first sexual abuse complaint was lodged against him in 1989.
But testimony and the records turned over by the diocese during pre-trial discovery indicate that Hubbard and church leaders had received their first sexual misconduct complaint against Haight not long after he was ordained more than a decade earlier. In 1980, rather than seek treatment for alleged pedophilia as Hubbard directed, Haight took a five-year leave of absence from the church and landed a job teaching children. The former bishop, according to court records, wrote a letter of recommendation for the priest without mentioning his sexual abuse history.
Kelly said it took 13 pre-trial discovery motions to wrest Haight’s personnel records from the diocese, including a batch of “secret” employment files that contained the details of his inpatient treatment and alleged history of sexually abusing boys.
Mittler, who said he intends to publicly disclose more of the details of his case soon, came forward this week after the diocese’s recent announcement that it would seek to set up a mediation program to compensate victims rather than engage in protracted litigation, which could prompt it to file for bankruptcy.
He said that Scharfenberger “is in no way being genuine,” and accused Costello and another attorney for the diocese, Marie Flynn Danek, of having “stonewalled 400 active abuse lawsuits for three years.”
“At every turn, we needed to seek judicial intervention to compel the diocese to produce documents that they said they didn’t have or that they were concealing,” Mittler said. “The diocese was never forthcoming, and remains hidden behind meaningless pen-and-paper announcements of compassion. The bishop and diocesan attorneys are attempting to create their own narrative, and this cannot happen.”
The diocese declined to immediately comment. Costello said characterizations that the diocese or its attorneys stonewalled the victim or his attorney during the pre-trial discovery process “are entirely unfounded and incorrect.”
“All aspects of the discovery process were conducted with the oversight and guidance of the court,” Costello said.
In a deposition last year, when Hubbard was asked about the practice of moving priests accused of sexual abuse to other parishes or assignments after some had received treatment, he acknowledged that the diocese did that instead of calling police. In Haight’s case, he was never prosecuted for alleged wrongdoing and is not on any sexual offender registries. His residence in Schenectady is three blocks from a middle school.
“Well, as we’ve testified before, if a priest was accused of sexual abuse and we determined that the allegation was credible, then we would send the priest for treatment and then determine upon what the recommendations of the treatment facility are,” Hubbard testified. “He would either return or not return.”
The former bishop also said the strategy of not contacting law enforcement or warning parishioners of abuse allegations was intended to avoid scandal and preserve “respect for the priesthood.”
Scharfenberger’s proposal to create a mediation program is being discussed among dozens of attorneys who represent the hundreds of alleged victims in the pending cases against the diocese.
The bishop, who took over leadership of the 14-county Albany diocese in 2014, said last week that “two divergent courses of action are shaping up in the diocese of Albany. One is the path of litigation; the other is to file for bankruptcy. … In either scenario, the amount of funds available to be disbursed to survivors is the same.”
The Child Victims Act, signed into law in 2019, opened a “lookback window” for previously time-barred civil claims involving sexual abuse of minors. The initial one-year window for filing claims was extended to August 2021 following the disruption of the court system caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The thousands of cases filed statewide have already led four New York dioceses — Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and Rockville Centre on Long Island — to file for bankruptcy protection.
Although the Albany diocese has publicly supported the Child Victims Act — after years of the Catholic church lobbying against its passage — and attested to its efforts to help alleged victims, its legal team has also waged a fierce battle in court to prevent the release of many of the records that documented the abuse and the diocese’s internal handling of it.
Brendan J. Lyons is a managing editor for the Times Union overseeing the Capitol Bureau and investigations. Lyons joined the Times Union in 1998 as a crime reporter before being assigned to the investigations team. He became editor of the investigations team in 2013 and began overseeing the Capitol Bureau in 2017. You can reach him at email@example.com or 518-454-5547.