Legal papers outline alleged sex assaults by 'Father Jerry'
By Paul Grondahl
June 29, 2019
|St. Lucy's Catholic Church, Altamont. March 17, 1978|
Photo by Skip Dickstein
|St. Lucy's Catholic Church, Altamont. March 17, 1978|
Photo by Skip Dickstein
Claims of "unspeakable atrocities" by ex-area priest come as legal window opens
In his bedroom upstairs at the Home for Wayward Boys in Knox, the priest had a king-sized waterbed with royal blue satin sheets.
The Rev. Gerard R. "Jerry" Miller, a priest of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette order founded in Hartford, Conn., repeatedly sexually assaulted teenage boys in his care on that waterbed for three years beginning in 1984, two of his victims alleged in legal documents their lawyers sent recently to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany and the Albany County district attorney's office.
In outlining their case in preparation for filing a lawsuit, Martin Smalline and JoAnn Harri, a husband and wife team who run an Albany law firm, laid out allegations of "rape and sexual assault ... but also the trafficking of children across state lines, along with obstruction of justice and concealment of criminal behavior."
The victims' accounts in the legal documents allege that in addition to assaulting boys in Albany County, Miller drove teenagers under his care to Agawam, Mass., and Atlanta, Ga., where they were sexually assaulted by Miller and another priest identified only as Father Jim.
In the spring of 1986, according to statements attorneys provided to authorities, the two alleged victims who are part of the legal action were sexually assaulted at the same time on the waterbed by Miller and Father Jim when the second priest visited Altamont.
"We find the allegations to be deeply troubling and Bishop (Edward) Scharfenberger wants to get to the bottom of it and we will do all we can on behalf of the victims," said Mary DeTurris Poust, spokeswoman for the Albany Diocese. She said Scharfenberger received the victims' testimony through their attorneys in April and, following standard practice, referred it to the diocese's victim assistance coordinator. In addition, diocesan officials have begun their own investigation and said they will cooperate with any investigation by the district attorney's office.
District Attorney David Soares declined to comment on the specific allegations against Miller. "Past victims and current victims deserve to have their complaints investigated and those who have committed these horrific crimes must be held accountable," he said in a statement.
Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard confirmed that he remembered Miller, but declined to say anything more. "This is under litigation and I cannot comment," he said.
In 2004, Smalline and Harri won a $300,000 judgment for one of the two teenage victims they also currently represent as part of an $85 million class action settlement against the Archdiocese of Boston, where Miller was ordained in 1976 at a La Salette seminary in Ipswich, Mass. The judgment was the maximum damage allowed by an arbitrator after the statute of limitations ran out for the victim nearly four decades after the sexual assaults took place. Another local lawyer for one of the teens also tried to pursue a legal case in New York, alleging probation officials could have stopped the abuse after the boy complained, Smalline and Harri said. That case was dismissed due to the statute of limitations and one part of the case against a probation employee was dismissed because the attorney failed to pursue the case, Harri said.
Bolstered by the passage this year of New York's Child Victims Act (CVA), Smalline and Harri are pressing the case on behalf of the two victims. The men and other survivors of childhood sexual abuse have a new path for seeking justice against their attackers. New York's statute of limitations for civil lawsuits previously required victims of abuse to file civil suits by age 23; the CVA changes it to age 55. For criminal prosecutions over childhood sexual abuse, the victim's age has increased from 28 to 55.
Once it goes into effect in August, the CVA is expected to prompt a litany of lawsuits like the one Smalline and Harri intend to file on behalf of their clients. The one-year window in which civil action can be taken is likely to unearth previously unknown allegations of abuse by religious figures, teachers and leaders of organizations for children.
"The passage of the Child Victims Act is certainly a step in the right direction to allow for some form of relief, and the very least, to acknowledge the immense harm done to so many innocent victims that the laws have failed to protect," Soares said.
"These unspeakable atrocities were accomplished over several consecutive years, and were enabled and facilitated by the grossly negligent supervision of Bishop Hubbard and the Albany Catholic Diocese," Smalline said.
Miller declined numerous requests for comment. He was served with legal papers by a representative of the victims' attorneys at his home in Florida. Miller has retained Eric Schillinger, an Albany criminal defense attorney who specializes in sex crimes. Schillinger said it is still very early in the legal process, and declined to comment for this story.
The men who accused Miller of abusing them through the mid-1980s are now 49 and 51, both married with children. During several hours of separate interviews, they told horrific stories of sexual abuse. Their descriptions corroborated each other's version and aligned with stories contained in testimony provided to authorities by their lawyers. The men often paused to compose themselves as they sobbed. They painted a picture of a cleric whose convivial image allegedly duped rural townsfolk and camouflaged a monstrous sexual predator. They said Miller employed threats, mind control and psychological leverage to control teenagers who arrived with low self-esteem and troubled home lives. Miller made them compliant with alcohol, drugs and lavish spending on shopping sprees at Crossgates Mall.
The teenage victims described the terrible anticipation each night as they watched TV or shot pool downstairs at the Home for Wayward Boys, and waited to hear the name of the boy — or boys — that Miller would summon to his bedroom.
"You just prayed it wasn't your name," one of the victims told me.
Miller grew up in Hartford, Conn., the son of a physician. He was ordained on May 15, 1976, and sent to Altamont three years later at age 29 as director of vocations. His presence helped ease a worsening priest shortage in the Albany diocese: Though Miller was not a diocesan priest, he celebrated Mass on alternate weekends at St. Bernadette's in Berne and St. Lucy's in Altamont. The victims' lawyers argue that arrangement placed him under Hubbard's supervision, at least indirectly.
Miller alternated Sundays at the two parishes (which later merged) with the Rev. Robert Roos, a diocesan priest who died in 2003 at age 75. Miller told the Altamont Enterprise in 1983 that the Albany diocese paid part of his salary, and the La Salette order paid the rest.
Parishioners at St. Lucy's and St. Bernadette's, where Miller served, recalled Hubbard presiding over confirmations with both Roos and Miller present.
"I didn't care for Father Jerry. He wasn't priestly or spiritual. I was appalled at his flashy lifestyle because he took the same vows I took," said Sister Mary Lou Liptak, who worked with Miller for several years in the 1980s at St. Bernadette's, which closed and merged with St. Lucy's in Altamont a decade ago.
Liptak, a Sister of Mercy who is the parish life director of St. Lucy/St. Bernadette Church in Altamont, said priests in that era were considered unassailable.
"There was a feeling that priests were holier than us and they were not to be questioned," she said.
Miller ran his Home for Wayward Boys with little oversight from his religious order or any government authority. Teenage boys who had gotten into trouble were sent to live with Miller in his unregulated program by naive parents, county probation officials and overburdened social service agencies willing to outsource unruly teens.
A suspicious fire on May 17, 1984, destroyed the home where Miller lived on the grounds of the La Salette Christian Life Center that he oversaw along Route 156 in Altamont and where he informally took teens into his care for short periods.
The fire started in an upstairs bedroom, but an investigation into its origin was inconclusive, Altamont fire chief John Mahoney told reporters after the blaze.
After the fire, Miller moved the Home for Wayward Boys to another location, on Lewis Road in Knox, to a residence donated by a St. Lucy's parishioner. The program expanded and Miller took in seven teenagers who lived with him for three years.
Trusting parents sent hard-to-control or delinquent teenage sons to this young, charismatic cleric in hopes he could reform them. Others were placed with Miller by a court order or a social service agency after running away from home or having a brush with the law.
Randy was 16 and lived in the Hilltowns in 1986 when he was caught riding a stolen dirt bike. After nearly three weeks in Albany County Jail, he was sent by court order to live at the Home for Wayward Boys. It was a split-level custom home with pale blue siding fronted by a two-tier wooden deck set back 50 yards behind a screen of trees off Township Road in the foothills of the Helderberg Mountains. The house is still there.
Randy, a 49-year-old married father of three who still lives in Albany County, had been an altar boy who served Mass for Miller at St. Lucy's. His parents believed their son was in good care with the priest.
Cocktails and clothes
The teenagers were known around the Hilltowns as "Jerry's boys." There were whispers in the community that something seemed awry about the house where teenage boys lived with a priest who wore Gucci loafers, drove a new Honda Prelude, and had a bushy mustache and curly dark hair. He did not wear a Roman collar or cleric's garb, and insisted the teens call him Jerry.
The seven troubled teenagers who were wards of Miller at the Home for Wayward Boys in the mid-1980s arrived "up on the hill" after hard journeys.
At first, they felt like they had hit the lottery when they arrived at Jerry's house. The priest brought Harold and Randy to the recently built Crossgates Mall, where they each bought $100 Nike sneakers, designer jeans, Timberland boots and custom sweatshirts. They said the home had the feel of a fraternity house: There was a large-screen TV and pool table, and both alleged victims said Jerry never hassled the residents about smoking pot or drinking alcohol in the recreation room although all were underage. Randy and Harold recalled ordering whatever they liked on the menu during dinners with Miller and the other boys at local restaurants. Miller ordered wine, whiskey sours and other mixed drinks for the teens.
At first, it seemed too good to be true. Harold and Randy caught the school bus to Guilderland High and had girlfriends at school. Both said they were embarrassed about being dubbed "Jerry's boys" and avoided any discussion about where they lived. They did not tell any of their friends they were the priest's wards.
"The rapes started not long after I moved in," Randy said.
Randy claims Miller forced the teen to perform oral sex on him, and violently sodomized him. If the boy tried to resist, Miller would snarl, "I'll send you back to jail then."
"This eats at me every day because I can't get it out of my head," said Harold, 51, a factory worker who lives in Saratoga County and is married with five children. (Both men asked not to be identified by their full names; in most circumstances, the Times Union does not identify alleged victims of sex crimes.)
Harold ended up at Miller's Home for Wayward Boys at 16 after he got into a fistfight with his brother in the living room and his mother tried to step between them to break it up.
"If I smell Scotch and cigarettes, I have a flashback and I'm right back there on Jerry's waterbed," Harold said, as his face flushed crimson with rage. He collapsed into sobs and muttered expletives about the priest he called "a monster."
Before a sexual assault, Harold said, the priest — a chain smoker and heavy Scotch drinker — would bring the boy an open bottle of berry-flavored Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler and made sure the teenager drank it all. Harold now believes Miller put some sort of drug in the wine cooler. He described feeling disoriented, paralyzed and unable to fend off the priest's sexual assaults. He described waking up in the priest's bed at daybreak with only hazy recollections but painful physical evidence of sexual assault, which the victims described in the lawyers' legal document.
Despite misgivings by some Hilltowns residents, the home passed muster after cursory checks by probation officials and social service agencies, a caretaker said.
"Jerry never tried anything with me, and I never saw him act in any strange way with the boys. If I did, I would have knocked him out," said Dave Vogel, a handyman who fixed things around Miller's house for several years and occasionally supervised the teens overnight if Miller had to travel. Harold and Randy described Vogel as a big brother figure.
"It is hard to understand why they never told me what was happening to them," said Vogel, who runs Vogel Disposal Service in Rensselaerville. "I liked those boys. They were good kids. They didn't deserve that. It makes me sick."
In 1987, Harold jumped out of a window to escape the Home for Wayward Boys. Randy ran away the same year, and took refuge at the nearby home of Charleen and Gary Bivona for several weeks as he recovered.
Randy confided in the Bivonas about Miller, and they contacted Liptak, the nun. Together they alerted authorities, but were unable to press criminal charges because Randy was too traumatized to give a full statement to law enforcement officials.
"It makes me sick to my stomach we did not stop him," Charleen Bivona said. She called Miller "a classic predator."
La Salette officials moved Miller out of town and the Home for Wayward Boys was closed. Miller was abruptly transferred by his order to the Church of St. Ann in Marietta, Ga. In 1989, he was transferred again to a church in Dagenham, England.
Officials with the La Salette order did not respond to requests for comment about the sexual abuse allegations against Miller. The Rev. Ron Gagne, director of communications for La Salette's publishing arm, recalled Miller from their time at the seminary together.
"Jerry was affable, relatable — just a normal person," Gagne said. He expressed shock and sadness over the allegations. "That is disturbing, but I did not know about that."
Miller eventually left the priesthood and later married. Today, the 69-year-old lives with his wife in Florida, according to public records.
Randy and Harold said they felt ashamed and lived with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. They never discussed the alleged assaults — not with each other, not with their families. It took decades of counseling and therapy to get them to open up, and to start their legal efforts.
"I thought this was what was expected of a kid in trouble like I was," Randy said. "When I ended up at Gerry's home, I felt more worthless than ever."
Each of the men were asked what they would say to Miller if they had the chance to confront him now. "He's a despicable, disgusting man who ruined my life and all the lives of the boys," Randy said. "I hope he burns in hell."
"He destroyed my life and I want him to pay for that," Harold said. "He took away my teenage years, and he treated us like meat thrown to the wolves."