N.J. diocese allowed ‘serial molester’ priest to prey on kids, former altar boy says in lawsuit

By Rebecca Everett
NJ Advance Media
May 14, 2019

[with video]

When Justin Hoffmann was 9 years old, his best friend was a priest in his late 60s. They spent time together almost every day.

But reflecting on that relationship Tuesday, a day after filing a lawsuit alleging the late Rev. Brendan Sullivan sexually abused him over the course of five years, Hoffmann said it wasn’t until 2017 that he realized, “it wasn’t a friendship.”

“When you’re with an authority figure when you’re young, you don’t know if something that they’re doing is right or wrong and I certainly shouldn’t have been expected to know," Hoffmann, now 29, said at a press conference in Cherry Hill with his lawyers.

Hoffmann, who was an altar boy with Sullivan at the former St. James Parish in Ventnor, filed a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden Monday and its former bishop accusing them of not preventing the alleged abuse. The abuse, which allegedly included inappropriate touching and indecent exposure, started in 1996 when Hoffmann was 7 and lasted until 2001, the suit claims.

Hoffmann calmly described Tuesday how he rationalized Sullivan’s actions.

“While they seemed playful and kind of like just messing around when I was a kid — it seemed O.K. When I look back on the things he was doing, it’s like gross negligence," he said. “I’m like, O.K., how did I get myself into this position.”

Sullivan was removed from the priesthood in 2010 after a different man reported Sullivan abused him in 1981 when he was 14. Sullivan served in 10 parishes in South Jersey after being ordained in 1960, and the diocese included him on its list of priests credibly-accused of abuse in February.

The lawsuit claims the diocese and the bishop at the time of the alleged abuse, Nicholas DiMarzio, “knew or should have known” Sullivan was abusing the Hoffmann, now of Philadelphia, and did nothing to stop it. DiMarzio is now the the bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn.

The suit also names as a defendant Holy Trinity Parish, Downbeach, which was created in 2010 to replace several former parishes including the former St. James Parish in Ventnor. Sullivan served there from 1987 until retiring in 2004.

Hoffmann claims in the suit that Sullivan groomed him with special attention, including taking him and several other altar boys out on his boat and taking them swimming. He also took Hoffmann out to dinner and “gave him money randomly and without request or explanation,” the suit said. does not normally name victims of sexual assault, but his attorneys said he is speaking out publicly in this case because he wants to encourage other victims to come forward.

“He wants other survivors to know that this can be done. Their voices can be heard,” said one of his attorneys, Gerald J. Williams, of the Haddonfield firm Williams Cedar LLC, at the press conference. “Justin has decided he’s not going to be afraid anymore. He’s not going to deny the effects this abuse has had on his life and he is hopeful that he can help others come to the same place in their lives.”

The abuse, which became more frequent over time, included Sullivan exposing himself to Hoffmann, inappropriately groping him and undressing him, the suit said.

The lawsuit claims that Sullivan was a “serial molester” of children, but includes details of only one other allegation of abuse. That was the report in 2010 by a man who said Sullivan abused him in 1981 while Sullivan was a priest at Assumption Church in Atco.

Sullivan had already retired in 2004, but was removed from the priesthood after a review in 2010. He acknowledged to the Press of Atlantic City that he had abused the boy but said it only happened once.

Michael Walsh, a spokesman for the diocese, said Tuesday that the report in 2010 was the first the diocese received about Sullivan.

“As in all such cases, the Diocese will notify law enforcement authorities of the accusation and offer professional counseling and therapy to anyone who claims to have been abused" Walsh said.

Williams said at the press conference that they believe there may be other victims, noting that there were other young boys present when some of the alleged abuse of Hoffmann occurred, but said he’s hoping to get more specific evidence during discovery.

Williams said that Hoffmann, unlike some abuse survivors, has managed to build a good life for himself. He served in the U.S. Navy and now works as a chef in Philadelphia. But he has struggled with depression, alcohol addiction, a loss of faith, emotional distress and other effects, he said. Hoffmann has been sober for one year and nine months, and credits the other trauma survivors he’s met through Alcoholics Anonymous, and in the #MeToo movement, with helping him come to terms with his repressed experiences in 2017.

A new law extending the statute of limitations to file childhood sexual abuse lawsuits hasn’t gone into effect yet, so Hoffman must prove that he filed suit within two years of realizing the causal relationship between the abuse and the damage it caused him.

The suit claims the diocese, parish and DiMarzio were negligent for, among other things, minimizing the conduct and providing “cover” to abusive priests “by applying euphemistic and false designations to their conduct and/or the reasons for transfers among parishes.”

According to the diocese, Sullivan worked in the following parishes and schools:

St. Theresa (Runnemede), Queen of Apostles (Runnemede), St. Maurice (Brooklawn), Villanova University, St. Joan of Arc (Camden), Camden Catholic High School (Cherry Hill), Blessed Sacrement (Margate), Holy Spirit High School (Absecon), St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (Absecon), Our Lady of Grace (Somerdale), Assumption (Atco), St. Patrick (Woodbury), St. James (Ventnor).


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