Five accusers have settled with Catholic Church in abuse cases, lawyer says
By Deena Yellin
North Jersey Record
January 14, 2019
A former Montclair woman who has settled with the Catholic Church over sex abuse allegations spoke out Monday about her alleged abuse by her family's priest, saying the response by the Newark Archdiocese was "despicable."
Danielle Polemeni said she was sexually abused by the Rev. Mitch Walters at ages 13 and 14 in her Upper Montclair home and on an eighth-grade class trip to the Poconos, while she was a part of St. Cassian's Parish and the school in Upper Montclair.
She was among five plaintiffs who won a total of $400,000 in in a July settlement that was announced Monday by their attorney, Mitch Garabedian. A sixth case is still in court, he said.
Defendants included the Newark Archdiocese, Walters, St. Cassian's Parish and St. Cassian's School in Montclair, and, in one lawsuit, St. John Nepomucene Church in Guttenberg, where Walters also served.
Now a mother and educator living in Ohio, Polemeni said she wants victims to know "you are not alone and this is not your fault. It's never too late to speak your voice and to get support and look for healing."
She spoke at a West Orange press conference Monday that was organized by Garabedian, the Boston-based attorney who was portrayed in the 2015 movie "Spotlight" about clergy abuse cases.
One of the accusers said Walters fondled him repeatedly in the church's confessional booth when he was a 12-year-old altar boy.
Church officials have said New Jersey's five dioceses have made payments of at least $50 million in settlements with victims of clergy abuse.
"This isn't about money. This is about validation for the victims," Garabedian said about the $400,000 settlement sum.
Polemeni, who was the first female altar server in the Newark Archdiocese, said the three-year legal process has been long and difficult, but also empowering.
Nevertheless, she said she was distraught by the response of the archdiocese to the lawsuit, saying it claimed that the abuse was in part the children's fault.
"The diocese is extremely despicable to say that the victims are partially to blame for their own abuse. No child is complicit in their abuse. They are trying to defend the indefensible," Polemeni said.
Garabedian said, "It simply indicates how insensitive the defendants are to clergy sexual abuse victims and how little they care."
He pointed to a citation of "contributory negligence" in the church's court filings.
Maria Margiotta, a spokeswoman for the Newark Archdiocese, said, "The legal language filed on behalf of the archdiocese is a standard response to these types of cases. It is unfortunate and extremely disingenuous for the plaintiff counsel to call out such language and mischaracterize it so as to sensationalize the case for heightened media attention."
Margiotta added that the archdiocese is working toward "the healing and reconciliation of survivors and seeks to resolve all claims, whether through mediation or otherwise. We are hopeful that the settlement of these five claims will begin the healing process for the victims-survivors, and we continue to work toward the resolutions of similar matters.”
Polemeni said her emotional turmoil lasted years.
"He was our family priest, and I had to see him at many different events up through the deaths of my parents in 2014, and he was a constant presence in my life. It was always my job to be cordial to him and to tolerate him."
Walters has denied the allegations, which date to the 1980s and 1990s. His last church position was listed as "Missionary Childhood Association," a worldwide organization made up of Catholic youth. He's been on leave since 2016.
"I am hopeful that we will see change, but that change will not happen unless people like myself will continue to speak out," Polemeni said.
Calls to Walters' attorney, Frank Arleo, were not returned.