L.I. Monsignor Scorns Jury, Insisting He Is No 'Monster'

By Dan Barry
NY Times
February 20, 2003

This article was reported by Dan Barry, Daniel J. Wakin and Elissa Gootman and written by Mr. Barry.

Although his name never appears in the recent Suffolk County grand jury report on sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests on Long Island, Msgr. Alan J. Placa acknowledges that he emerges as a central villain. Not only does the report suggest that he is the imperious architect of policies that protected pedophiles, but it says that three decades ago he groped teenage boys through their clothes and made "feeble attempts" to grope an altar server.

Before the sexual abuse scandal spread to the Long Island diocese last year, Monsignor Placa was best known as the high-ranking adviser in the Diocese of Rockville Centre; the close friend of former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani; the gifted homilist who struck some as brilliant and others as clinically detached, even arrogant. Now he is portrayed as the dark figure, "Priest F," in the angels-and-devils story laid out in 180 pages by last week's grand jury report.

"I'm not even a human being," he said during an interview last week at the Midtown office of Giuliani Partners, where he works as a consultant. "I'm a monster."

Monsignor Placa was not among the 97 witnesses to testify before the grand jury during its eight-month inquiry. Robert Clifford, a spokesman for the Suffolk County district attorney's office, declined yesterday to discuss who had been subpoenaed and who had not.

But if the monsignor had testified - and he would have, he says - the grand jury would have seen a 58-year-old man with a meticulously groomed beard and mustache, whose pale face flushes at the thought of his precipitous fall. A year ago he was the bishop's representative on extremely delicate matters, conducting the diocesan equivalent of internal affairs investigations. Now he is on administrative leave, pending the outcome of the diocese's inquiry into the abuse allegations. For now, he is prohibited from celebrating Mass in public and wearing clerical garb without permission from the bishop.

With alternate flashes of erudition and impatience, Monsignor Placa emphatically denied virtually everything said about him in the report - especially the declaration that he abused minors - and frequently played down his influence within the diocese.

For years his reputation within the diocese was that of "a heartless persecutor of priests," he said. "And now, in fact, to be told that I was not a protector, but a predator. That I was a predator because of the preposterous allegations of abuse lodged against me personally, and that I was the architect of a policy whose purpose was to deprive people of their rights and to protect sexual -- that's heartbreaking."

The subject of Monsignor Placa generates strong emotions, pro and con. "I would trust him to handle anything with judgment and good taste and to always do the right thing," said Peter Powers, a former deputy mayor to Mr. Giuliani who has known Monsignor Placa since high school. But Robert Fulton, who was the diocese's director of priest health services before leaving the priesthood, said: "Placa tried to handle this all to the law of Placa. People didn't trust him; he's a snake."

To make sense of the wrenching crisis at the Diocese of Rockville Centre, one first has to make sense of Monsignor Placa.

Alan Placa attended Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn, where he began lifelong friendships with Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Powers. The three men have often reminisced about attending opera performances, and staying up late to talk about politics, theology and poetry.

The three friends also attended Manhattan College together. Mr. Giuliani said later that he and Alan Placa had considered earning doctoral degrees and becoming "practicing philosophers," earning a living by "just sitting somewhere, developing ideas and thoughts." Instead, Rudy Giuliani and Peter Powers went on to law school, and Alan Placa went on to the seminary.

Alan Placa was ordained a priest in May 1970, and assigned as an associate pastor at St. Patrick's parish in Glen Cove. Then, from 1974 to 1978, he was the dean of students at St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary, a high school in Uniondale. He worked for Catholic Charities, graduated from Hofstra University School of Law and, before long, became the diocese's point man under Bishop John R. McGann on the occasional allegation of abuse involving a minor.

"We'd often observe that they'd come in clumps," he said. "We'd get two or three in the space of a month, and then we wouldn't hear anything for months."

He cast himself as an expert on clerical sexual abuse, helping the diocese devise legal policies and consulting on cases around the country. In 1990, he contributed an essay to a book called "Slayer of the Soul: Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church," in which he emphasized that a diocese must first treat victims compassionately - although, he added, "as a lawyer I am not ashamed to admit that I have a concern for protecting the assets of the church."

In his essay, he warned that a mere accusation can cause lasting damage to a priest. He also suggested that an abusive priest can return to ministry after extensive, effective treatment, but only under supervision and with no contact with minors. He reiterated that position during last week's interview; he said that the "zero tolerance" policy adopted last year by American bishops - in which priests found guilty of a single sexual offense are automatically removed from ministry - was immoral and "un-Christian."

The Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, a psychologist who edited the book, said that Monsignor Placa was among the first priests to focus on clerical sexual abuse. "Before everyone casts him in the role of being a bad guy, Al is one of the pioneers who tried to help the church," said Father Rossetti, the president of the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., where priests accused of sexual abuse were sometimes sent for evaluation.

But the grand jury report portrays Monsignor Placa as a central figure in a conspiracy of decades within the Diocese of Rockville Centre to save face and money - by shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish and by using an "intervention team" to trick victims into silence and to quash legal claims. He was arrogant and cold, it said, so much so that a nun once called him a bastard. And, when interviewing alleged victims, he purposely disguised the fact that he was a diocesan lawyer as well as a priest.

To support these impressions, the report quotes from several of the monsignor's memorandums. In June 1993, for example, he instructed colleagues not to identify him as a lawyer when referring abuse cases to him, in part because he served as an administrator in such cases. "My legal training is very useful in helping to gather and analyze facts," he wrote, "and in helping us to avoid some obvious pitfalls, but we must avoid `frightening' people."

Over the last year, several victims and their relatives have complained about Monsignor Placa's manner. Kathy Lotten, whose son was abused as a teenager by a priest in Kings Park in the late 1970's, called the diocese in 1993 after learning that the priest had been appointed pastor at another parish. She said that Monsignor Placa was "kind of oily."

"He was very articulate and used a lot of big words, which I felt was to intimidate me," Mrs. Lotten said. "One in particular I remember was, if this priest is guilty he's guilty of ephebophilia" - the abuse of an adolescent, not a child. "He said, `Are you aware that the statute is way out,' or something along those lines, and I can't sue."

"I wouldn't swear to it, but I do not remember him saying that he was an attorney," she said. "If he was there as an attorney, then I should have had an attorney."

Monsignor Placa dismissed the controversy over his priest-lawyer role as a "red herring." He said that if he had identified himself as a lawyer, people might have mistakenly thought that he handled litigation on abuse cases, which he did not. Besides, he said, "the vast majority of cases, 95 percent of the cases, were outside the statute of limitations."

"Everyone came to me because I was the bishop's representative," he said, his voice rising in disbelief. "They knew that. Not only did they know it - it wasn't something that was slipped over on them - it's what they asked for."

He also said: "If I had identified myself as a lawyer, what would they have done differently? Not told me their troubles?"

The monsignor said the report left the impression that he was omnipotent within the church. This impression was bolstered by the central role he played in the annulment of Mr. Giuliani's first marriage to his second cousin in the early 1980's.

The monsignor said that perception of power was overblown. He said he played no role in reassigning priests and rarely kept track of an accused priest once he had completed the evaluation. In fact, he said, the diocese sometimes ignored his advice to have all accused priests evaluated at facilities with no connection to the church.

He oversaw health care for the diocese, he said, and, as a member of its intervention team, conducted the initial investigation of most of the allegations of abuse by priests. He said that in every case, he offered to arrange counseling for the alleged victims - whether he believed they were telling the truth or not - and that in every case, "the priest was immediately removed from his assignment" for evaluation.

He said that many priests despised him as a result, but that he had no choice. If an alleged victim came forward to say that the claim had been made up, then Monsignor Placa said that he would apologize to the priest, and ask for the priest's forgiveness.

"However, suppose you try the other direction," he said. "I come to you, I say this kid says you did this. You say, `I did not,' and I say, `I believe you.' And two weeks later you molest another child. Who the hell is going to go to that kid and say, `I'm sorry'?"

Monsignor Placa said that the diocese did make mistakes, but he categorized them as being in the "If I knew then what I know now" vein. He maintained, for example, that the model he developed for responding to allegations of abuse - the three-priest "intervention team" - was sound, and saw no difference in the model now used by the bishop of Rockville Center, William Murphy: a three-member team that includes a priest, a nun and a former police chief.

"The model is skills sets: legal, clinical and church administrative," he said. "I don't think there's any difference at all, unless you assume that priests are untrustworthy." Then he added that having a woman on the panel "enriches the way that model works."

When asked to cite one mistake that he personally made, he began by again saying, "If I knew then what I know now." He remembered a complaint about a priest who frequently invited children to listen to music in his room in the rectory. Monsignor Placa interviewed the children and the priest, and determined that nothing untoward was happening, although, he said, he told the priest and his pastor that these get-togethers were not "wise."

"As a matter of fact, I now find out that he was in fact apparently sexually abusing kids," he said.

Monsignor Placa is not named in the grand jury report. Mr. Clifford said the district attorney's office believed no one was identifiable, a responsibility that he said had been "handled with care."

But general biographical details, combined with the report's statement that Priest F was instrumental in developing the diocese's policy on abuse allegations, clearly point to Monsignor Placa.

According to the grand jury, Monsignor Placa - or "Priest F" - was guilty of the very behavior that he was trying to weed out. It said that in the early 1970's, he demonstrated conduct that "was, at first, so equivocal, his victims weren't really sure it was happening to them - that is, until it happened again and again and again."

On two occasions, the report says, Priest F "appears to have made feeble attempts at abusing a boy who was an altar server." It adds, "This victim came forward decades later, only after Priest F denied sexually abusing anyone in a local newspaper story about sexually abusive priests."

Monsignor Placa said that the first he heard of this allegation, which dates to his years as a young priest at St. Patrick's in Glen Cove, was "when I read the grand jury report." He denied ever trying to grope a minor.

The grand jury report says that Priest F was then given an assignment "that provided a large and continuous source of boys - a school," a reference to St. Pius. It says that Priest F was "cautious but relentless in pursuing his victims"; that he groped boys behind a newspaper, book or poster; and that everyone in the school knew to stay away from him.

Although the report is vague on how many people have accused Monsignor Placa of groping them at St. Pius, one is clearly Richard Tollner, a 1977 graduate who is now a mortgage broker living near Albany. Mr. Tollner has told reporters, the grand jury and diocesan officials that Monsignor Placa repeatedly groped him. He has said that he mentioned the incidents to a classmate, Kevin Waldron, and that he complained to a math teacher, Angelo Scordato.

Mr. Waldron said yesterday that he specifically recalled that Mr. Tollner had told him about the groping. But Mr. Scordato, now retired, said on Sunday that he had no recollection of such events, and that he told Mr. Tollner this when Mr. Tollner called him while cooperating with Newsday last year on an article about Monsignor Placa.

"I find it incredible that I'd forget something like that - and I'm not senile," Mr. Scordato said. "I would have gone directly to the rector's office. I wouldn't have tolerated that kind of nonsense."

Last spring, after Newsday reported Mr. Tollner's allegation, the Nassau County district attorney's office notified the diocese that it was investigating the alleged abuse, a quarter-century later. As a result, Bishop Murphy placed Monsignor Placa on administrative leave.

Mr. Tollner said this week, "I have nothing to add to my previous testimony, and I stand by it." Monsignor Placa said that he never touched Mr. Tollner, whom he remembered as a "troubled boy" who was always "singling himself out."

Monsignor Placa said that he was especially outraged to see himself included in the "Priests as Perpetrators" section of the grand jury's report. There are detailed allegations of abuse: of children being raped by priests, of a minor being taken to a sex club by a priest - and, as the monsignor noted in a sarcastic tone, "a clumsy attempt to abuse by touching someone's thigh."

"Give me a break!" he said. "Let me tell you something. My hand up to God, I didn't do any of those things! But if that were true, does that belong in there?"

Monsignor Placa has no choice but to wait for the diocese to complete its inquiry. He said that he expects to be exonerated, which would allow him to return to ministry. Until then, he wears a suit to the offices of Giuliani Partners.

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