Six Decades Later, 2 Men Accuse Nuns of Sex Abuse

By Jeff Diamant
The Star-Ledger
October 3, 2009

From a sidewalk in Kearny, Henry Coffey, 80, points to the sections of the old Sacred Heart Orphanage where he says nuns molested and beat him as a boy in the early 1940s: the laundry room; the nuns' quarters; the classrooms.

His sex-abuse claims will be hard to prove in court — the nuns are deceased, for one thing — but Coffey and another former orphanage resident, Frank Fioretti, 81, recently cleared a legal hurdle when a Superior Court judge in Essex County denied a motion to dismiss their 2005 suit.

That motion had been brought by the Pallatine Sisters, the religious order now based in Harriman, N.Y., that ran the boys orphanage until it closed in the 1950s.

Henry Coffey tours the building where he says he was abused as a child, when it was Sacred Heart Orphanage.
Photo by Patti Sapone

"I remember everything," Coffey said in an interview during which he recounted allegations that a nun and he had repeated sexual encounters in her room during his seventh-grade year, and intercourse at a bungalow in Harriman during the summer. "I always seemed to have a good memory."

Allegations that Catholic clergy molested minors in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s have become common in the last seven years, in the aftermath of the clergy sex scandal. Allegations dating to the 1940s are rarer, said Jeff Anderson, an attorney in St. Paul, Minn., who has represented thousands in clergy sex-abuse cases.

"You just don't hear about it," he said, "because those people have learned to suffer in silence and are afraid of rebuke, reprisal or disbelief."


The older cases present obvious challenges to the court system, as the defense pointed out while trying to dismiss the case: Witnesses die. Evidence is lost. Memories fade. And then there are the statutes of limitations.

Stressing the passage of time since the alleged abuse, the Pallatines' attorneys noted in court papers that when the plaintiffs lived at the orphanage, from 1937 to 1943, "Franklin D. Roosevelt was the president of the United States, Winston Churchill was the British prime minister, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and James Cagney won the 1942 Academy Award for best actor for his role in the classic movie 'Yankee Doodle Dandy.'"

The Pallatines' lawyer, in pressing for dismissal, argued that statutes of limitations were in effect, that the plaintiffs' delays in suing make the case virtually impossible to defend, and that Coffey tried to unfairly influence the testimony of another former orphanage resident. The lawyer, Anthony Dougherty, did not return calls seeking comment.

The defense can try to dismiss the suit again, later this year, at a hearing on whether the men's cases merit exceptions to the statutes of limitations. Judge Claude Coleman ruled Sept. 25 that the men had a right to that hearing.

The plaintiffs, charging negligence, are asking for compensatory and punitive damages.


While the men, close friends and former brothers-in-law, spoke frequently about being beaten at the orphanage, they never spoke about sex abuse there until 2004, said Greg Gianforcaro, an attorney for the men. He said he will argue — and a psychologist will testify — at the upcoming hearing that Coffey's memory of the sex abuse was repressed until 2004, and that Fioretti didn't view the sex as harmful until after Coffey spoke about it with him.

Therefore, Gianforcaro said, the timetable set by the statute of limitations — two years from a victim's "reasonable discovery" that an injury was caused by sexual abuse — should be viewed as starting in 2004 rather than decades earlier. He said a psychologist will testify at the next hearing that Coffey repressed the memory.

In court papers, the defense doubts these claims.

Coffey brought his former wife and two daughters to meet the nun in question in the 1960s and he accepted an apology from the nun, according to court papers.

Coffey said he brought his family to meet the nun because she was dying, and that he viewed the apology as being for beatings and the general operations of the orphanage.

Both of Coffey's daughters eventually became nuns. One would take the same religious name as the nun who Coffey says had sex with him, Sister Regina. Coffey said that was largely coincidental, due to his daughter's devotion to the Virgin Mary. The prayer "Salve Regina" is often read after completion of the Rosary.

Coffey, who like Fioretti lived at Sacred Heart from 1937 to 1943, said his memory of being sexually abused returned after he learned on television, in October 2004, that the Newark Archdiocese had settled with victims of sex abuse for $1 million without acknowledging wrongdoing.

Coffey, who has been married twice — the second time to Fioretti's sister — lives in Colonia. Fioretti, married and divorced twice, lives in Lady Lake, Fla,

The men's stories are not identical. Fioretti said he frequently was beaten at the orphanage, and that he was molested when a nun's tickling of him led to sexual play over time.

"I didn't know it was sexual, myself," he said. "I'm learning a lot more since I started going to therapy."

Later in his time at the orphanage, Fioretti said, a nun who had watched him in the bathroom told him to come to her room, where they kissed, and, another time, had intercourse.


Last week, for the first time since 1943, Coffey walked inside the old orphanage building, which now houses the nondenominational City of Hope International Church and the Kearny Christian Academy.

"It looks a lot better than when I was here," he said, marveling at the renovations and recalling rows of upstairs beds where the orphans slept.

He did not tour the nuns' old living quarters. The toughest part of returning, he said, was visiting the laundry room, where he said nuns would molest orphans while allegedly checking for head lice, using heavy combs to press the boys' heads into the nuns' upper legs.

While the laundry room reminded him of "the worst of this," he said, he expressed pleasure in seeing children eating in a nicely appointed cafeteria.

"I'm impressed by the joy I've seen," he said, tearing up slightly as he left the building. "That wasn't the case when I was here, when we had to pour coffee over our cereal. But it's the ending that counts."


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