1st Arrest from Church Abuse Complaints

By Stephanie Saul and Anthony M. DeStefano
Newsday [Long Island NY]
May 24, 2002

A priest dismissed by the Brooklyn diocese three years ago after being accused of sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl was arrested yesterday, the first criminal case in the city to come out of church sex abuse complaints.

Despite his dismissal by church officals in Brooklyn, the priest was hired by the Archdiocese of New York, where he has served for nearly three years.

The Rev. Francis Nelson was charged with two counts of sexual abuse and one count of endangering the welfare of a minor, all misdemeanors.

Authorities allege that he pulled the girl, now 15, into his lap while visiting her family in their Carroll Gardens home in May 1999, placing his hands under her bra and pushing his genitals into her buttocks.

The incident occurred while Nelson was a priest at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church on Court Street, authorities said.

"The child is very traumatized," said Rhonnie Jaus, chief of the Brooklyn district attorney's sex crimes unit.

Nelson pleaded not guilty during an arraignment in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn yesterday. The 38-year-old priest - who was arrested at St. Charles Borromeo on West 142nd Street in Manhattan - was released on his own recognizance, but forced to surrender his passport.

In announcing the indictment, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said it was based on complaints in files turned over to him by the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Queens.

The complaints contained in those files - 42 allegations against 21 priests - mostly fall outside the statute of limitations, Hynes said yesterday, although investigations are continuing.

Yesterday's indictment also appeared to illustrate a pattern that has emerged with the disclosures of priest sexual abuse cases - the Roman Catholic Church's willingness to refer priests from one diocese to another, even after they've been accused of abuse. Such transfers have occurred both within the United States and internationally.

"It's just inexcusable," said David Clohessy, founder of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, who said he found it particularly surprising that a priest accused of abuse in one borough had been able to merely move across borough lines.

Even though he moved almost directly from his dismissal in Brooklyn to his assignment in Manhattan - apparently not returning to his native India as Brooklyn chruch officials thought - the archdiocese said yesterday that it was not aware of any allegations against Nelson until this week, when they were notified by prosecutors.

Nelson was hired in 1999 based on a letter of good standing from Bishop Leon Tharmaraj in India, according to Joe Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York.

In addition, the archdiocese had a letter attesting to the good job Nelson did in Brooklyn from the Rev. Thomas Doyle, pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea, where Nelson worked from 1996-99, Zwilling said. Zwilling would not say what, if any, efforts had been made to investigate why Nelson left Brooklyn.

And church officials in Brooklyn and Manhattan indicated it was considered the duty of Tharmaraj to notify the New York archdiocese of the complaint. Frank DeRosa, a spokesman for the Brooklyn diocese, said the diocese investigated the complaints of the girl's family in 1999 and found them credible. As a result, Nelson was dismissed.

Bishop Thomas Daily notified Tharmaraj of the decisions and the reasons, DeRosa said.

DeRosa said the letter from Doyle, which the New York archdiocese cites as attesting to the good job Nelson did in Brooklyn, was not intended as a letter of recommendation.

At St. Mary Star of the Sea yesterday, parishioners said that Nelson was a quiet, friendly man who spoke English with a heavy accent.

"He had dinner in my house. He was very nice," said Joann Smith, a parishioner, who remembered that Nelson left the parish abruptly. "Honestly, it was like this," said Smith, snapping her fingers. "He was here one day, and gone the next. We were told he'd gone back to India."


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