Sins of the Father

By John Chadwick
January 29, 2006

James Hanley still has the gregarious personality his young victims found so disarming.

Standing on a Paterson street, he is the picture of bonhomie, telling stories, cracking jokes and playfully barking, "Get outta here" to an elderly female friend who had pulled up in a car and shouted, "You staying out of trouble?"

It has been almost three years since Hanley was forced from the priesthood. Yet he wears a cross, attends Mass and has a bumper sticker on his Toyota Camry: "My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter."

"If anything, the Lord has said ... 'Don't worry, I'll stand by you,' " he said.

But even divine intervention can't undo his past.

James Thomas Hanley is the most notorious clerical sex abuser in northern New Jersey.

"He is an evil man," said Mark Serrano, who said he was abused for seven years by Hanley. "And he's just as much a danger to children now as he was 30 years ago."

Twenty-three men say Hanley molested them as children, accusations that threw the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson into crisis in 2002. Twenty-one of those men sued the diocese, and they accounted for the lion's share of a $5 million payout last year to abuse victims -- the largest settlement of its kind in New Jersey.

The abuse, which occurred from 1968 to 1982 and included fondling and oral sex, often took place in quiet church rectories. The victims -- boys ages 9 to 15 -- regarded Hanley as their friend and confidant.

The statute of limitations barred criminal prosecution, but Hanley said in a sworn statement in 2003 that he molested at least 15 boys, although he now admits to only about a dozen.

He has remained otherwise silent, fading into anonymity in his hometown of Paterson.

But last month, Hanley contacted a reporter to tell his story publicly for the first time. And, based on his account and the words of victims and their lawyer, along with a psychological evaluation Hanley made available, a picture emerges of a manipulative priest whose charm masked an array of personal demons, including alcoholism and mental illness.

Hanley, now 69, expressed in several interviews a contradictory mix of emotions: repentance, defiance and even contentment. He admitted, sometimes in explicit detail, seducing boys into performing sex acts, and said those actions were wrong. But he didn't see himself as fully culpable, blaming his actions on his illnesses.

And, he's hardly living in despair over his past. Indeed, he says he has never felt better, thanks to a recent change in prescription drug.

"I feel like I'm coming out of a long fog," he said.

His victims, meanwhile, are fighting a lifelong battle to recover. A priest who counseled 10 of them said the men have struggled with a range of problems from depression to drug abuse to marital discord.

"It has been called murder of the soul," the Rev. Kenneth Lasch said. "Their lives are jaded. They have lifelong problems that won't go away with counseling."

Hanley, a stocky man with wire-rimmed glasses, began befriending and betraying boys six years after his 1962 ordination. His behavior got worse in the early 1970s, when he became pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Mendham. He said he was frequently drunk at the altar, occasionally berating parishioners as "phony balonies" and regularly engaging in brazen sex acts in the rectory.

"I was so drunk," he said. "I felt comfortable [in the rectory]. I would do it most times when the priests were out. So there was a planning in that."

He even went to New York City to buy the notorious pornographic movie "Debbie Does Dallas" and showed the film to two boys who had asked to see it, he said.

"It was like 50 or 60 dollars," he said, laughing at the memory. "So I brought it home and I said, 'All right ... get over here. Let's sit down and watch this.' "

But it would all come back to haunt him after his victims grew up. In the mid-1980s, Serrano disclosed his experience to then-Paterson Bishop Frank J. Rodimer, who, after some delay, removed Hanley from parish work. More victims came forward in 2002, setting the stage for the lawsuit, Hanley's ouster from the priesthood and his sworn statement to the victims' lawyer, admitting the abuse.

"I couldn't stand the emotional strain anymore," he said. "I wanted it to be over."

God's grace

Hanley seems to have two reasons for wanting to go public.

On one hand, he said he wants to admit his guilt and show he has repented for his actions.

"[God's] grace can transform a sinful man like myself into a better man who has learned from his illnesses and mistakes," he said in an initial letter to a reporter.

Nevertheless, he insisted in an interview that he molested fewer boys than the 15 he admitted to molesting in the sworn statement. And he condemned a local abuse victims support group, saying its members posted misleading photographs on its Internet site that purport to show him entering St. George's School in Paterson several years ago.

"That was a lie," he said, standing outside St. George's Church, which is across the street from the school. "I was going to Mass."

Hanley also stressed that he was a very sick man during the years he abused -- from the heavy drinking that clouded his judgment and from the bipolar disorder known as manic depression, which he said gave him delusions of grandeur and a hyperactive sex drive.

It's an explanation that has allowed him to live with himself as he goes down in history as North Jersey's worst sexually abusive priest.

"How do you live something like that down?" he asked. "The only way I could handle it was through therapy and the doctor telling me that, 'Jim, you're not a pedophile.' "

His victims don't buy it.

"I think the man did have a problem," Ray Skettini said. "Pedophile, plain and simple."

Serrano said Hanley is making excuses.

"He's simply trying to transfer his guilt," he said. "Just like the way he tried 30 years ago to transfer his guilt to the children."

And the victims' attorney, Gregory Gianforcaro, casts doubts on Hanley's downward estimate of the number of victims. Hanley admitted to 15 boys in the sworn statement and acknowledged that heavy drinking may have impaired his ability to remember additional victims.

"The statement speaks for itself," Gianforcaro said.

But victims also say the church shares the blame.

"In one respect, I think he should be in jail," Skettini said. "On the other hand, I can understand why he was sick. He didn't get the help he needed from the church."

Hanley said he once admitted his transgressions to a fellow priest. But he said that priest, who is dead, was unwilling to discuss it with him.

Church officials eventually learned of Hanley's drinking and sent him to a rehabilitation center in the early 1980s. But they insist they never knew about the sexual abuse until Serrano came forward in 1985.

A marginal life

Hanley said he has been sober for 23 years and hasn't molested anyone since the early 1980s.

He leads a marginal, but outwardly stable life in Paterson, where he lives in a three-room apartment. He said he receives a monthly income of $2,100 from the diocese and several hundred dollars in Social Security.

Hanley lives not far from the neighborhood where he grew up -- a former Irish-American enclave where his family and many others adored their charismatic priests.

"I always knew that's what I wanted to be," he said.

But his dream was deteriorating by the time of his second parish assignment, Our Lady of Good Counsel, in Pompton Plains. He had become depressed and started drinking heavily, he told psychologists during a 1986 stay at the St. Luke Institute, a Maryland-based residential treatment center for Catholic clergy.

He started his days with Communion wine and moved to vodka in the afternoon. He said he had no trouble finding drinking partners in the priesthood, especially at confirmation time.

"I invited all the guys," he said of the priests who joined him when his church hosted confirmations. "I'd fill up two shopping carts full of liquor. ... We'd play cards. ... The $100 bills would be flying across the table. Then they'd all drive home."

Increasingly inebriated, Hanley molested his first boy while at the Pompton Plains parish, he said.

Skettini, who was among the early victims, said Hanley invited him to the rectory, showed him pictures of naked women and then asked him if he felt anything.

"One thing led to another, and the next thing I know is he has his hands on me," Skettini said.

Hanley said the root of his behavior dated to his early teenage years, when a priest loudly humiliated him after he confessed to masturbating.

He said the pain of that experience prompted him to take the opposite approach as an adult: He encouraged boys to masturbate.

"I'd say, 'All right, I'll show you how,' " he said. "And that's the way it started."

He added: "I would say it almost started innocently, but it wasn't innocent."

Indeed, Hanley appears to have carefully groomed his victims, encouraging rather than forcing them to engage in sex acts.

He said several times that there was little resistance.

"I didn't have to prompt him," he said of one victim. "He would come over and cooperate."

'Like an evil scientist'

Serrano said those words are all too true and will haunt victims until the day they die.

"He was like an evil scientist," said Serrano, a former Mendham resident now living in Virginia. "Of course children cooperated. That's what he programmed into us."

At the same time, adults failed to notice.

Skettini said his parents were headed for a divorce at the time. And Serrano said his parents were busy raising seven children.

Hanley -- rebellious and ribald -- zeroed in on their needs, they said.

"He had this warped sense of humor, and that was part of the attraction," Skettini said. "He knew everything to do to make you want to be around him."

Both men say they may never recover from the wounds.

Skettini, a 49-year-old from Sussex County, said his feelings of shame have seeped into his sexual relationship with his wife.

"She would want to touch, hug and cuddle, and I would push her away," he said. "Every time I would get into a sexual encounter, I would freeze."

When asked what he would say to the men, Hanley replied without hesitation that he would tell them that it was all his fault.

"They have to know that," he said. "For their own psychiatric, mental and spiritual [health]."

But at the same time, Hanley said he thinks he has conquered his demons.

Indeed, he cites a scene from the film "Good Will Hunting" in which a troubled young man is told by his therapist, "It's not your fault."

"I saw that movie at the time, and I cried like a baby ...," he said. "Because that's what I had to hear, that it wasn't my fault."


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Abuse in New Jersey

A diocese-by-diocese summary of New Jersey cases from 1950 to 2002 in which Catholic clergy were accused of sexual abuse:

Newark Archdiocese (Bergen, Hudson, Essex and Union counties): Church officials reported that 71 priests and deacons had been accused of abuse, and that 20 were cleared. The other 51 faced disciplinary proceedings, retired, died or left the archdiocese. The archdiocese has paid $3.8 million in connection with the cases.

Paterson Diocese (Passaic, Morris and Sussex counties): Church officials reported that 30 priests, or 4 percent, were credibly accused of abuse. The diocese has paid about $8 million to settle cases, provide counseling and cover legal fees.

Trenton Diocese: Reported 43 substantiated allegations against 25 priests, or 1.8 percent of the clergy. The diocese has paid $926,000 in connection with the cases.

Metuchen Diocese: Reported 18 priests accused of abuse, or 1 percent of clergy. The diocese spent $795,000 in connection with the cases.

Camden Diocese: Reported allegations against 33 priests, or 2.3 percent of clergy. The diocese has spent more than $6 million to settle the cases.

Source: John Jay College of Criminal Justice

* * *

By the numbers

Priests accused of sexually abusing minors: 4,392 (4 percent of Catholic priests)

Accusers: 10,667

Cost to the church: more than $600 million for victims, treatment for priests and legal expenses.

Figures compiled by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York for a 2004 study based on diocesan figures for 1950 to 2002.


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