Brooklyn Diocese Is Part of $27.5 Million Settlement in 4 Sex Abuse Cases
By Sharon Otterman
New York Times
September 18, 2018
|Some of the abuse committed against the four children occurred inside St. Lucy’s-St. Patrick’s Church in Brooklyn, as well as in an apartment in the old schoolhouse behind the church.|
Four men who were repeatedly sexually abused as children by a religion teacher at a Roman Catholic church reached a $27.5 million settlement with the Diocese of Brooklyn and a local after-school program on Tuesday, in one of the largest settlements ever awarded to individual victims of abuse within the church.
The victims were repeatedly abused by Angelo Serrano, 67, who taught catechism classes and helped organize the religious education programs at St. Lucy’s-St. Patrick’s Church, in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. The abuse occurred inside the church, in Mr. Serrano’s apartment located in an old schoolhouse behind the church and at the affiliated after-school program, lawyers for the victims said.
The settlement comes amid a flurry of investigations — including a New York State civil investigation — and disclosures of sex abuse within the Catholic Church that have led to mounting pressure on Pope Francis to take action against bishops and cardinals for their role in the abuse crisis.
The sexual assaults in Brooklyn took place between 2003 and 2009, the lawyers said, when the boys were between the ages of 8 and 12.
One of the boys reported the abuse to his mother, who contacted the police. Mr. Serrano was arrested in September 2009, and pleaded guilty two years later to first-degree sexual conduct charges; he is serving a 15-year sentence at the Fishkill Correctional Facility.
Seeking punitive damages from the diocese, two of the victims filed a lawsuit in 2013, and the other two victims later brought lawsuits as well. The pastors at the church during the time the abuse occurred, the Rev. Stephen P. Lynch and the Rev. Frank Shannon, were named as co-defendants.
In fighting the idea that they should be held responsible for the abuse, the Diocese of Brooklyn argued that Mr. Serrano was a church volunteer, not a diocesan employee. The diocese also disputed that the abuse took place on church grounds, arguing that abuse in Mr. Serrano’s apartment was not its legal responsibility.
But lawyers for the victims pointed out that Mr. Serrano received a stipend from the church and had a desk on church property.
A Brooklyn judge sided with the victims, finding that clear warning signs that Mr. Serrano was abusing the children were ignored by parish workers and priests and not reported.
“The record is clear that Lynch and Shannon had knowledge that for years Serrano often had several boys, including plaintiff, sleep over at his apartment,” Justice Loren Baily-Schiffman of Kings County Supreme Court wrote in her 2017 order dismissing the church’s motion for summary judgment of the case. “In fact, both Lynch and Shannon testified that they visited Serrano on numerous occasions when young boys were present.”
In a deposition, Father Lynch testified that he saw Mr. Serrano kiss an 8- or 9-year-old boy on the mouth and inappropriately embrace the boy.
A church secretary, Beatrice Ponnelle, who shared an office with Mr. Serrano, also testified about questionable behavior. She said that although the church had a rule that children were not allowed to be left alone in the office with a staff member, boys as young as 7 or 8 would come into the office to do their homework while sitting on Mr. Serrano’s lap. When she left for the day, he would be the only adult in the office with the boys, Justice Baily-Schiffman wrote.
Despite Mr. Serrano’s position as a religious educator — with Mr. Serrano at the church nearly every day between 1997 and 2009, volunteering at the summer camp, and getting keys to the church and rectory — no records were kept regarding him or his employment history at the church, the judge wrote.
With the case set for trial, the Diocese of Brooklyn agreed to settle. But in a statement released on Tuesday, the diocese still seemed to minimize its role in allowing the abuse.
“The diocese and another defendant have settled these lawsuits brought by the four claimants who were sexually abused by Angelo Serrano at his private apartment many years ago,” the statement said. “Mr. Serrano was a volunteer worker at a local parish; he was not clergy or an employee of the diocese or parish.”
The statement added that for three of the claimants, “another defendant” would be contributing “a significant portion of the settlement.” A spokeswoman for the diocese said that the Dorothy Bennett Mercy Center, a local after-school program based next to the church in Clinton Hill, had agreed to pay about one-third of the total settlement.
The spokeswoman, Adriana Rodriguez, did not address whether Father Shannon and Father Lynch were punished for failing to report signs of abuse.
In all, each of the four victims will receive $6,875,000, the lawyers said, sharing an email with the diocese’s lawyer confirming the settlement amount. The note indicated that the diocese would confer with its insurers regarding how the settlement would be paid.
The largest previous individual settlement to an abuse victim in the Catholic Church is believed to be in 2007, when two victims of a lay music minister in the Rockville Centre diocese collected a total of $11,450,000, or $5.725 million each, according to BishopAccountability.org, which tracks clergy sexual abuse cases. The lawyers for the Brooklyn victims said they believed this was a record settlement to individuals for sex abuse in the Catholic Church in this country.
The victims, who are now between the ages of 19 and 21, have requested that their identities be withheld.
“These were boys who were abused in second grade through sixth grade, for years for some of them,” said Ben Rubinowitz, another lawyer for the victims. “The egregious nature of the conduct is the reason that the church paid what they did.”
The Brooklyn diocese, which includes Queens, is already in the process of settling hundreds of older abuse cases where the victims can no longer sue because of the statute of limitations.
Like many dioceses, the Brooklyn diocese has confronted waves of parish mergers and closures as the number of parishioners has shrunk. St. Lucy’s-St. Patrick’s parish was itself the result of a merger of parishes in the 1970s because of dwindling attendance. In 2010, the diocese announced that the church would be shuttered in another wave of parish closings.
In a lengthy article by The New York Times about the struggling parish published in 2004, Mr. Serrano appears as a “raspy-voiced pastoral assistant” who took phone calls, promising one woman he would help her find her lease so she could avoid eviction. He calmly counseled another caller who was in a psychiatric ward, feeling desperate.
“Suicide is not an option,” he told her, dropping his gruff demeanor. “Pray to St. Jude, the patron of the impossible.”
“Mr. Serrano can identify with her,” the story reported then, five years before his arrest. “He has struggled with depression. So far, he is winning. But, he admitted, this year would be hard. Very hard. He was talking about spending Christmas alone this year.”
Since June 2017, 474 victims in Brooklyn have applied for settlements through the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program; 374 of those cases have so far been settled, the program said. In all, six dioceses in the state are running similar programs. The Brooklyn diocese took out a loan to pay for the millions required to cover those settlements, which generally amount to less than $500,000 each.
The settlement to the four victims comes after an extraordinary grand jury report in Pennsylvania detailing the abuse of more than 1,000 children by hundreds of priests over decades.
“This is an extremely large settlement, and the size of the settlement has to be an indication of the severity of the abuse, and also of the pressure that the Catholic Church is under due to all the developments that are happening,” said Terry McKiernan, co-director and president of BishopAccountability.org.
Correction: September 19, 2018
An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the Dorothy Bennett Mercy Center. It is next to St. Lucy’s-St. Patrick’s Church in Clinton Hill, not in Fort Greene.