Catholic Church settles for $400K in five sex abuse lawsuits against N.J. priest, attorney says
By Kelly Heyboer
Newark Star Ledger
January 14, 2019
|The Rev. Michael "Mitch" Walters was accused of sexual abuse of children at St. Cassian Church in Montclair and St. John Nepomucene Parish in Guttenberg. He denied the accusations. |
Five alleged victims who say they were sexually abused by a New Jersey priest settled their lawsuits against the Catholic Church for a total of $400,000 -- and a sixth cases against him is still in court, an attorney said.
The Rev. Michael “Mitch” Walters was accused of molesting both boys and girls at St. Cassian Church and school in Montclair and St. John Nepomucene Parish in Guttenberg in the 1980s and 1990s. He denied the accusations and was removed from ministry in 2016.
Five lawsuits against Walters were settled in July after the cases went to mediation, said Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston-based attorney for the alleged victims. Garabedian, who was portrayed by Stanley Tucci in the 2015 film “Spotlight,” is known for representing victims in cases against the Catholic Church.
A sixth case filed by an alleged victim abused as a child is still in court. In that case, the alleged victim is suing Walters, the Archdiocese of Newark, St. Cassian Parish and St. Cassian School.
“The Archdiocese of Newark is working diligently towards 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,” the archdiocese said in a statement.
Church officials have previously said New Jersey’s five dioceses have paid out a total of at least $50 million in settlements with clergy sexual abuse victims. Much of that money came from the dioceses' insurance reserve funds.
Danielle Polemeni, one of the alleged victims who settled a case against the priest, said Walters groped her on multiple occasions when she was 13 and 14 years old and attending St. Cassian’s Church and the parish’s school in Upper Montclair.
During an eighth-grade class trip to the Poconos, Walters groped her breast and buttocks as he carried her around a swimming pool for several minutes, Polemeni alleged.
“I also thought that that was just how men behaved,” Polemeni, now a teacher in Ohio, told NJ Advance Media in 2016. “That, sometimes they were creepy, and gross, and you just had to wait for them to go away.”
In the sixth case still pending in court, both attorneys for Walters and the Catholic Church asked for the case to be thrown out entirely or in part, Garabedian said. In court papers, the church attorneys have alleged “contributory negligence” or “comparative negligence,” meaning the cases should be dismissed because the alleged victim was partially at fault for the alleged abuse.
The same arguments were made by church attorneys in the five other cases that were eventually settled, Garabedian 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," the Archdiocese of Newark said in a statement.
The announcement of the settlement of the cases against Walters come as the Catholic Church in New Jersey is preparing to release a list of all priests and deacons who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse.
Church officials said the list is expected to be released by the Archdiocese of Newark and the four other dioceses -- Metuchen, Paterson, Camden and Trenton -- early this year. It is unclear how many names will be on it.
New Jersey’s attorney general set up a task force last year to investigate priest sexual abuse and whether the Catholic Church covered up the crimes. The investigation is modeled on a similar two-year probe in Pennsylvania that used subpoenas to gather decades of church files that revealed more than 1,000 children were sexually abused by at least 300 priests in that state.
The New Jersey attorney general’s task force set up a hotline -- (855) 363-6548 - for people to report allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy.