Former Priest, Catholic Church Face Another Lawsuit for Alleged Sexual Abuse

By Peter Franceschina
Sun-Sentinel [Palm Beach FL]
September 25, 2003

A Palm Beach County man filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Catholic Church and one of its former priests, alleging the priest sexually abused him when he was a boy in the early 1990s after he told the priest that a teacher at his Christian middle school touched him inappropriately.

At the center of the lawsuit is the Rev. Matthew Fitzgerald, who faces an earlier lawsuit in Palm Beach County and is named in lawsuits filed in Long Island, where he served before transferring to South Florida in 1989. Church officials have said Fitzgerald came to the diocese with a letter of recommendation from his bishop.

The latest suit alleges officials at the Diocese of Rockville Center on Long Island and the Diocese of Palm Beach covered up for Fitzgerald's sexual misconduct for years, before he had his rights to serve as a priest revoked last year. Fitzgerald, 59, could not be reached late Wednesday, but he has maintained he did not engage in inappropriate behavior.

Lorraine Sabatella, chancellor for the Diocese of Palm Beach, declined to comment on the suit because she hadn't seen it.

The suit says the boy and his family, devout Catholics, moved in 1986 from New Jersey to Boca Raton, where they joined Ascension Catholic Church. Fitzgerald and the family became close when Fitzgerald served at the church, and the priest went to their home for dinner and to swim in their pool.

The boy, identified in the suit only as John Doe, was enrolled in an unidentified Christian school. There, a teacher fondled him on several occasions when he was 13 and 14 years old, according to the suit. West Palm Beach attorney Andrew Pelino, who represents the alleged victim, said the boy didn't recognize it as sexual abuse at the time.

The alleged victim has settled a confidential liability claim against the school, said Pelino, who declined to identify the school.

The boy told Fitzgerald how his teacher would touch him, and Fitzgerald told him to forget about it, according to the suit. Fitzgerald then progressed from massaging the boy's shoulders to fondling him, the suit says.

Pelino said the boy repressed memories of the abuse until the summer of 2000, when his memory was partially triggered. "Our client gave bits and pieces to his parents but had never told them anything before," Pelino said.

The boy's mother then went to a priest with her concerns, and that priest alerted the Rev. James Murtagh of the allegations, according to the suit. Pelino said Boca Raton police took a statement in May 2002 from the priest who talked to the boy's mother and called Murtagh. The priest told police Murtagh never followed up on the allegation, Pelino said.

Murtagh served as an interim administrator for the Diocese of Palm Beach after Bishop Anthony O'Connell resigned in March 2002, after acknowledging inappropriate sexual conduct with seminary students early in his priesthood.

As the interim administrator, Murtagh helped review the files of the priests in the diocese to determine whether there were any allegations against them involving the abuse of minors. Under a 1998 agreement with the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office, church officials pledged to report allegations involving the abuse of a minor.

The suit says Murtagh, who could not be reached for comment, didn't report the boy's allegation to authorities.

Peter Franceschina can be reached at or 561-832-2894.

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