15 Sue Archdiocese in Decades-Old Cases

By Stephanie Saul
February 28, 2004

When her son was 8, he asked about the dad he'd never met.

Nilda Lopez says she had to tell him the truth: his father was the parish priest who'd left for Puerto Rico after she became pregnant, Lopez said.

"This has been eating at me for years," Lopez said Friday, 26 years after her son, David, was born.

The baby's father was the Rev. Luis Rios, she said. He had forced her to have sex at Our Lady of Esperanza Roman Catholic Church in Washington Heights, according to allegations in a lawsuit filed Friday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan.

Lopez, 47, a nurse's aide who still lives in Washington Heights, is one of 15 plaintiffs in the sexual abuse case against the Archdiocese of New York. Three other plaintiffs in the case also spoke to reporters at the office of Manhattan attorneys Michael Dowd and Susan Egan.

One of them, John Engel of Forest Hills, said he was abused by the Rev. Donald Whalen from 1963 to 1964, when Whalen was assigned to St. John Vianney Church in Manhattan. Whalen, who is now deceased, used to take him to a cabana in the Rockaways, Engel said, where much of the abuse occurred.

"I have never been to the Rockaways since," said Engel, 51. "Anytime I would hear 'the Rockaways' I would get upset."

The suit accuses the archdiocese of covering up the allegations. Responding Friday, archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling noted that the alleged abuses occurred decades ago, with one allegation as long ago as 1944. He said the lawsuit will be dismissed because the allegations are too old.

"The court will see that this case has no merit and will dismiss the lawsuit without delay," Zwilling said.

He added that of 11 priests named in the case, eight are dead and three are members of religious orders outside the archdiocese's control.

The most explosive allegations contained in the case, one of several such cases filed by Dowd's office against regional dioceses, are those by Lopez.

Displaying pictures of the accused priest, she said she first went to him as a teenager for religious training, then began visiting him because he offered to help her study for her Graduate Equivalency Diploma.

But when she confided to him that her father was abusive and violent, he forced her to have sex, threatening to tell her father what she had said, Lopez alleged.

When she became pregnant, Rios offered her money from the church collection plate and demanded that she have an abortion, she said. When she refused, another priest told her the church would help her, but never did, she said.

"It was real hard. I had to lie to get welfare. My father threw me out of the house because I wouldn't tell him who the baby's father was," she said.

Lopez said Friday she wants a DNA test conducted on Rios, but that might not be possible. Rios is believed dead, Zwilling said.


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