Suit: S.J. Priest Molested Girl

By Jim Walsh
The Courier-Post
May 17, 2012

CAMDEN A North Carolina woman has sued the Diocese of Camden, alleging church officials failed to protect her from an abusive priest in the early 1980s.

Lisa Syvertson Shanahan alleges the Rev. Thomas Harkins molested her on multiple occasions in 1980 and 1981 at a Hammonton church. The assaults stopped, the lawsuit says, when Harkins "suddenly" left St. Anthony of Padua parish in 1982.

The lawsuit asserts that Harkins was removed from the parish after another girl accused him of assaulting her, but that church officials did not make that public. Harkins was removed from the priesthood in 2002, after the diocese had settled two complaints in the 1980s that alleged he had abused young girls in Hammonton.

This is the second lawsuit brought against the diocese this year alleging sexual abuse by a priest. An Ohio man, Mark Bryson, sued in January, alleging he had been abused about 45 years ago by the Rev. Joseph Shannon at a Camden parish, also called St. Anthony of Padua.

The woman's attorney, Daniel Hartstein of Cherry Hill, and diocesan spokesman Peter Feuerherd could not be reached for comment. Harkins also could not be reached.

Shanahan, who was born in 1969, alleges the abuse occurred when she was a fifth-grade student taking CCD, or religious-instruction, classes from Harkins. The suit accuses Harkins of "grooming" the girl for sexual abuse.

"He frequently chose her to do the readings during the Sunday Children's Mass, a special honor reserved for the best and brightest children in the parish, and frequently gave her special gifts, such as a pink rosary and bookmarks," the lawsuit says. "Harkins even took Lisa on a day trip to Atlantic City for a pro-life parade."

The priest inappropriately touched the girl through her clothing on about 10 to 15 occasions in 1980-81, the suit alleges. After one assault, the lawsuit says, Harkins allegedly told Shanahan "that she was a good girl and reassured her that everything was OK with what he had done."

The suit alleges the diocese's secretive handling of Harkins allowed him to target multiple girls over the years. "Harkins preyed on underage girls and used his position as a priest of the diocese to obtain access to his victims long before he began sexually abusing Lisa," the suit says.

It contends the diocese "knew or should have known" of misconduct by Harkins, claiming he was treated for "sexual misconduct" in 1978 and 1982 and that another girl's parents had complained about Harkins to the parish pastor, the Rev. Umberto Carta, during the time of Shanahan's alleged abuse.

"At no point prior to his removal from the priesthood did the diocese disclose that Father Harkins was the subject of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct (and) that his history of sexually abusing children was known to the diocese at least as early as 1978," the lawsuit asserts.

Both sides are likely to fight over the state's two-year statute of limitations for such suits.

An attorney for the diocese in March asked a federal judge to dismiss Bryson's suit, arguing the legal deadline passed when Bryson was 20, or two years after he became an adult.

Shanahan's lawsuit asserts she did not realize she had grounds to sue until October 2009, when she learned of recent lawsuits by other alleged victims of Harkin. The two sides have agreed to toll, or suspend, the passage of time toward the legal deadline from Aug. 8, 2011, to the present, the lawsuit says.



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