Former Priest Says Revered Colleague Was a Predator

By Sharon Otterman
New York Times
October 29, 2017

Stephen Ryan-Vuotto, 55, said he was abused by Rev. Robert V. Lott more than 50 times between 1975 and 1985. He had kept silent, in part, because after the abuse ended, he became a priest.

Stephen Ryan-Vuotto was 14 and had recently lost his father to lung cancer when a priest in his Greenwich Village parish began inviting him to sleep over at the rectory. His mother was happy, he recalled, because she revered priests.

In particular, she loved the Rev. Robert V. Lott, the man who had befriended her son. He had ministered to the boy’s dying father, and was starting charitable organizations. Before his death in 2002, Father Lott’s reputation grew, as he led an effort to build hundreds of low-income housing units in East Harlem. To this day, an assisted living center, a home health care organization, a community development corporation and a charitable foundation in East Harlem are named for him.

But those nights at the rectory were not innocent. In August, Mr. Ryan-Vuotto was awarded a $500,000 settlement from a compensation program being run by the Archdiocese of New York for sexual abuse by Father Lott. In an interview, Mr. Ryan-Vuotto said he was abused more than 50 times between 1975 and 1985, in acts ranging from fondling to sodomy. But he kept silent, in part because after the abuse ended, he became a priest.

Mr. Ryan-Vuotto, who was known as Father Ryan for nearly 20 years, is one of 181 victims who have been awarded settlements by the New York Archdiocese for sexual abuse by priests or deacons in claims reaching back to the 1950s. The deadline for victims to apply is Wednesday.

Mr. Ryan-Vuotto spoke about his abuse on Thursday, and plans to hold a news conference on Monday to encourage more victims to step forward. By going public, he becomes one of only a handful of Roman Catholic priests nationally who have spoken about their own clergy sexual abuse. He is also the first person to name Father Lott as an abuser, forcing a reassessment of a man some called a saint.

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“This is not a happy day for me, and I’m not thrilled about it,” said Mr. Ryan-Vuotto, 55, who lives in the Albany area and works at a college convenience store. “But it is something I had to do from the deepest core of my being. If I’m going to be transparent and honest and expect that of others, then I need to do it.”

“I believe, I truly believe,” he added, “that although it is going to sully the name of someone a lot of people look up to, it’s truthful. And in the Bible, it says, the truth will set you free.”

Most victims of childhood sexual abuse in New York State have been unable to sue or file charges against their abusers because the statute of limitations requires that they report the abuse before age 23. Most victims are unable to come forward until they are older because of the trauma, psychologists say.

A group of legislators and victims’ advocates have pushed to relax the statute, but the bill has not passed the state Legislature, in part because of lobbying from Catholic bishops. This year, the bishops began offering an alternative form of justice to those who claimed abuse by their priests.

The New York, Brooklyn, and Rockville Centre dioceses have each begun independent mediation panels, which offer victims monetary settlements for their abuse if they agree to drop further legal action. The Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Programs, as they are formally known, are being administered by Ken Feinberg and Camille S. Biros, the mediation team that also ran the federal Sept. 11 compensation fund.

Of the 328 sex abuse claims already considered, the majority were already known to church officials. The mediators believe none of the claims they have heard were fabricated, Ms. Biros said.

“It’s heart-wrenching, because they are 50 or 60 years old, and still crying when they speak about it,” she said.

The program maintains strict confidentiality, but victims are free to speak about their experiences. Joseph Zwilling, the spokesman for the New York Archdiocese, said stories such as Mr. Ryan-Vuotto’s showed that the program was meeting its goal to “help bring some measure of justice and peace to victim-survivors of abuse.”

“Victim-survivors have consistently said that what they really desire is to be listened to, believed, and to hear ‘I’m sorry,’ and our reconciliation and compensation program is a tangible sign of our desire to seek forgiveness,” he said.

In the New York Archdiocese, mediators considered 146 abuse cases already known to the diocese and 114 new claims. Among the new ones was Mr. Ryan-Vuotto’s.

Father Lott was his mentor as he joined the priesthood, and also his family priest, officiating over the marriages of his siblings and the funerals of his grandmothers.

Mr. Ryan-Vuotto said it wasn’t until he entered the seminary in 1987 that he began the process of overcoming what had happened.

As part of his therapy, he confronted Father Lott in the early 1990s. Father Lott, who was then pastor of St. Francis de Sales parish in Manhattan, didn’t even look up from his desk, he said. “You know, I always cared very deeply for you, and I never meant to hurt you,” he recalled Father Lott saying.

Mr. Ryan-Vuotto was a priest for 18 years, his last post as pastor of St. Rita’s Church on Staten Island. In 2008, he petitioned for a leave of absence, telling the chancery that he was questioning his vocation because of his own sexual abuse.

After leaving the ministry, he met the man who would become his husband, Michael Vuotto, moved to the Albany area and joined the Episcopal Church. He received no pension, and his priest friends cut ties with him, presumably to avoid association with his gay marriage. He had to start over. “The church was everything to me,” he said.

But Father Lott is not the only respected priest whose legacy is being reassessed in recent weeks because victims who received settlements have spoken out. Also named publicly for the first time were: Monsignor John Harrington, who was the director of family services for New York Catholic Charities before being named the Vicar of Rockland County in 1996, and who died in 2009; Monsignor Kevin O’Connell, who was the director of the Catholic Youth Organization in the New York Archdiocese and national chaplain of the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, and who died in 1984; and the Rev. Herbert D’Argenio, a priest at St. Theresa’s in the Bronx who was known for encouraging young men to join the priesthood, and who died in 1996.

Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer portrayed in the movie “Spotlight,” represented Mr. Ryan-Vuotto. He called for all posthumous honors to be stripped from Father Lott and the other accused priests.

“The reputation of Father Lott should be reflected to show that he was a pure predator who preyed upon an innocent child by repeatedly sexually abusing that child over the course of years,” he said. “It is not unusual for the Catholic Church to put up buildings in the names of predator priests, and supervisors who allowed predatory activity to take place.”

In East Harlem, the executives of the Lott Community Development Corporation, Lott Residence, Lott Community Home Healthcare, and Lott Foundation were grappling Friday with the news that their namesake had been named a sexual predator.

“The boards and executive leadership of the Lott organizations need time to digest this news and reflect on the question of whether we should rename our organizations,” the organizations said in a statement.








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