Boy Reported Priest Sex Abuse to Bishop, Who Told Him to ‘never Speak of This Again,’ Suit Alleges
By Rebecca Everett
March 13, 2019
It’s not unusual for victims of clergy sex abuse to wait decades to report what happened to them. But a lawsuit filed Friday claims a boy abused by a Vineland priest in 1962 was in a car within minutes of the abuse, being driven in the middle of the night to report it to the then-bishop of the Diocese of Camden.
“Never speak of this again,” was the response he received from the late bishop Celestine Damiano, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit filed by a 73-year-old Ocean County man describes abuse at age 16 by Father Richard Gerbino, then a priest at the St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Vineland. He is among the credibly-accused priests the New Jersey dioceses released publicly in February.
And in a twist, the priest the boy immediately reported the abuse to — and who drove him to meet with the bishop — also ended up being outed as a child abuser decades later.
The driver, John P. “Jack” Connor was named in the Pennsylvania clergy abuse grand jury investigation report. The report alleged bishops in Camden, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh shuffled him from diocese to diocese, even after he admitted to abusing a boy in 1984, until he was removed from ministry in 2002.
Gerbino, who has previously been accused of abuse, and Damiano are both dead, but Connor and another boy who were in the Vineland house that night in 1962 will be called to testify as witnesses in the case, said Toms River Attorney Robert R. Fuggi Jr.
Fuggi said that in all his years of representing survivors of clergy sex abuse, he has never heard of an incident of abuse that was reported as swiftly and as high-up as this.
“He drives them right to the bishop’s house,” Fuggi said Wednesday. “I’ve never seen that before.”
Michael Walsh, a spokesman for the Camden Diocese, said the first time the diocese heard anything about these allegations was on March 1. He said it was reported to law enforcement, as are all reports of abuse under diocesan policy.
The lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in Ocean County, says the plaintiff grew up in Pennsylvania and became friends with Connor, then a seminarian known then as Father Jack, while the plaintiff was a student at Sacred Heart Elementary in Havertown.
The plaintiff, identified in court documents by the initials A.S., kept in touch with Connor after the latter left to become a priest at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, now known as Divine Mercy Parish. In the summer of 1962, when he was 16, A.S. and his friend decided to go visit Connor at the parish in Vineland.
They spent the evening eating, talking and playing games with Connor and his superior, Rev. Gerbino, who also lived in the parish house, the suit said. When it came time for bed, the suit said, the other teen slept in Connor’s bed, Connor slept on the couch and Gerbino “suggested that A.S. could share his bed with him as it was big enough.”
The lawsuit said that A.S. was “raised to trust” clergy and so he “didn’t think anything sinister of the offer.”
But as soon as the lights were out, Fuggi wrote in the suit, Gerbino put his hand in A.S.’s underwear, grabbed his penis and forced the boy’s hand onto his own penis. A.S. was stunned and, after Gerbino tried to take his underwear off, fled from the room, Fuggi wrote.
He started banging on the door of his friend’s room and Connor asked him what had happened and if Gerbino had “touched his ‘jewels.’” After A.S. replied that he had, Connor immediately drove both boys to Bishop Damiano’s residence in Camden to report it, despite the distance and the late hour, the suit said.
After A.S. told Damiano what happened, according to the lawsuit, “the Bishop swore A.S., [his friend] and Father Jack to secrecy and that they should, ‘Never speak of this again.'”
Fuggi said it wasn’t until last summer, when A.S. read articles in the newspaper about another victim of Gerbino’s, that he realized that what happened to him more than 50 years ago had caused him suffering and emotional damage his whole life. Given the two-year statute of limitations, he will have to prove A.S. didn’t realize he was damaged by the abuse until that time.
Fuggi said his client is a successful professional but the lawsuit said he has also suffered from depression, anxiety, emotional distress and an inability to trust others as a result of the abuse.
Walsh acknowledged that this is not the first allegations against Gerbino, but he did not answer a question about how many had come forward with accusations.
He did confirm the church paid a settlement in the last year to Annette Nestler, the daughter of the late Mike Kissell. Kissell was abused repeatedly by Gerbino and then killed himself in front of her when she was 7 in 1970, she told NJ.com in a past interview.
Gerbino resigned from St. Francis of Assisi in 1980 after allegations he had a drinking problem, the Daily Journal reported at the time.
According to the diocese, the other parishes where he was assigned include Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (Camden), St. Rose of Lima (Haddon Heights), Our Lady Star of the Sea (Cape May), Corpus Christi (Carneys Point), Assumption (Atco), and St. Patrick (Woodbury). He served as chaplain at the Newman Club at Rutgers-Camden and the Air National Guard Headquarters in Camden. The Press of Atlantic City reported he was removed from ministry in 1985 for mental-health reasons, but Walsh declined to confirm that.
The lawsuit claims Damiano, St. Francis of Assisi Parish and the Camden Diocese conspired to cover up the abuse and endangered the welfare of children by failing to report the abuse as required by law. Walsh said the Diocese denies this.
Damiano was 55 when he died in 1967 from a pulmonary embolism, according to his New York Times obituary. The diocese’ website says he was named a bishop, though he was referred to as Archbishop Damiano, in 1960. He devoted his efforts to improving Catholic education in South Jersey and helping Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic parishioners, the website said.
The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as an injunction ordering the diocese to take steps to prevent, investigate and respond to sexual abuse or harassment within its educational programs.
Rebecca Everett may be reached at email@example.com . Follow her on Twitter @rebeccajeverett. Find NJ.com on Facebook.