21 Men and 5 of Their Wives Sue Paterson Diocese over Sex Abuse

By Ronald Smothers
New York Times [Morristown NJ]
January 13, 2004

Jan. 12 - In a lawsuit that took some unusual tacks among the hundreds of cases aimed at child sexual abuse by priests, 21 men and 5 of their wives sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson on Monday, charging negligence in the abuse of young boys as long ago as 1968.

The suit seeks unspecified damages and nonmonetary relief from the diocese, its longtime bishop, Frank Rodimer, three former priests and three of the parishes where they served. The suit, filed in Superior Court in Morris County, comes some 20 months after the victim of one of the priests broke his silence about a decade-old legal settlement, prompting other victims to come forward.

Marianna Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Paterson diocese and Bishop Rodimer, did not return phone calls for comment on Monday, but earlier in the day, she told The Associated Press, "We intend to defend this suit vigorously."

The inclusion of wives in such suits is unusual, according to legal experts and support groups for victims. The wives are claiming in the suit that the trauma of the childhood abuse had affected their marital relations. But lawyers said that they could not recall a court's allowing such a claim in a trial.

Even more unusual was the assertion by the lawyer for the plaintiffs that one of the priests had admitted his acts to him and could serve as a witness on behalf of the people he had abused.

The lawyer, Gregory Gianforcaro, said that one of the more notorious among the diocese's former priests, James T. Hanley, the former pastor at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Mendham, had "admitted to committing repetitive acts of child sexual abuse and has agreed to cooperate." Mr. Gianforcaro

added, "I will discuss with the diocese officials the nature of what I have from Mr. Hanley."

Mr. Hanley was investigated in the 1990's by the Morris County prosecutor, who later concluded that the statute of limitations had expired on most of the instances of abuse. He was removed as a priest but was never charged. He could not be located for comment on Monday.

Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who has represented more than 700 people who have accused priests of sexually abusing them, said that it was "very rare" to have a priest admitting to the acts alleged as plaintiffs started into a civil action against the church hierarchy. He said the offending priests "operate in denial" and rarely confess.

Mr. Hanley is accused in the suit of abusing 19 plaintiffs. The other priests named in the suit, accused of abusing one plaintiff each, are the Rev. Thomas Rainforth and Deacon Carlos Guzmon. In addition to the three, the bishop and the diocese, the suit names the parishes of St. Joseph's in Mendham, St. Christopher's in Parsippany and Our Lady of Good Counsel in Pompton Plains.

At a news conference here, Mr. Gianforcaro and other plaintiffs aimed their criticism mainly at Bishop Rodimer, who at 76 is scheduled to retire soon. They noted that it had been 20 months since he had dismissed Mr. Hanley from the priesthood in June 2002 and that all they had seen since then was "pastoral passivity" and little acknowledgment of what had happened and the diocese's role.

Mr. Gianforcaro said that the nonmonetary damages demanded by the plaintiffs could include apologies, full disclosure of the abuse and a process by the diocese to prevent its reoccurring.

Joining the news conference was Mark Serrano, the Mendham man who was abused by Mr. Hanley in the 70's and whose family sued the diocese in 1987, resulting in a sealed settlement. In 2002, Mr. Serrano revealed what had happened, causing many of the plaintiffs in Monday's lawsuit to come forward.


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