Church leaders gave predator priests ‘getaway vehicle’ to abuse kids, lawyer says

By Brian Amaral
Providence Journal
October 02, 2019

The attorney for a former altar boy suing the Diocese of Providence urged people to come forward with information that could shed light on what church leaders and others knew about the sexual abuse of children.

Timothy J. Conlon, attorney for now 53-year-old Philip Edwardo, said at a news conference Wednesday that the church and its leaders should be considered “perpetrators” of the abuse Edwardo suffered as a child, just as much as the abusive priest himself.

“The problem is the institution,” Conlon said at his office. “You don’t sue the cockroaches for being in a restaurant. You sue the restaurant for letting them breed.”

Edwardo, who now lives in Florida, said he was inappropriately touched, molested or otherwise abused from 100 to 300 times by the Rev. Philip Magaldi, then a parish priest at St. Anthony Church in North Providence. Magaldi died in 2008. In July, the diocese placed him on its list of “credibly accused” clergy.

Edwardo’s suit, filed Monday in state court, takes aim at the diocese’s role in the abuse crisis as part of an effort to overcome possible barriers to the litigation.

The state this year extended the deadline for child sex abuse suits from seven years to 35 years after a victim’s 18th birthday. And even if the statute of limitations had run out under the old law, victims could sue “perpetrator defendants” under the new law as long as it was within that time frame.

The statute wasn’t retroactively extended for suits against “non-perpetrator defendants,” like church leaders who negligently supervised their priests, leading to concerns that it would shield the institutions that allowed the abuse to happen.

But Edwardo’s suit, borrowing from criminal conspiracy and abetting law, argues that the diocese and its leaders were very much perpetrators under the law, even if they didn’t physically participate in the abuse.

“The law looks at the guy who drives the getaway car the same way they look at the guy who pulls the trigger,” Conlon said. “The institution of the church established a significant getaway vehicle for these perpetrators. And that fact could not have been lost on those priests.”

It’s believed to be the first suit filed because the state extended the statute of limitations for them over the summer, Conlon said. Edwardo turned 53 on Wednesday, the new deadline for suits against sex abuse perpetrators. The suit names Bishop Thomas Tobin, former Bishop Louis Gelineau, the diocese itself, and St. Anthony Church.

The diocese said in a statement Tuesday night that its legal counsel was reviewing the suit.

To read the more than 200 pages in the complaint and its exhibits is to revisit, in precise detail, the darkest decades in recent church history, years that continue to affect the church’s present and its future.

Edwardo’s suit alleges that church leaders thwarted criminal investigations, shuffled abusive priests around, and used euphemisms like “absent on leave” to hide the fact that clergy members were preying on children. That gave priests like Magaldi license to abuse boys like Edwardo, the suit said.

That, according to the theories underlying the suit, moved the diocese and its leaders from negligent bystanders to participants and perpetrators.

For instance, the suit revisits claims that a woman reported the abuse of her son by the Rev. Roland Lepire in the late 1970s to the Woonsocket police. The police, at then-Bishop Gelineau’s request, got the mother’s agreement not to proceed with a criminal prosecution, the suit said; Gelineau, the suit said, offered to “handle the situation.”

“Somewhere there’s a detective who went to a mother and said the bishop wanted her permission to handle something privately,” said Conlon, Edwardo’s lawyer.

Who else knew about Magaldi’s abuse? The abuse included overnight stays in the rectory, and there were unidentified witnesses to Edwardo leaving in the mornings, Conlon said. Conlon wants those sorts of people to come forward.

Conlon urged anyone with information to contact his office, or state authorities. The state police recently set up a dedicated hotline to report clergy sex abuse. The number is (401) 764-0142.

The suit does not allege any specific knowledge the diocese had about Magaldi’s abuse as it was happening.

Of the 51 names included in the diocese’s list of “credibly accused” clergy, Magaldi is among the most notorious. He pleaded guilty to embezzling church funds in state court, money he was accused of using to go on tropical trips with underage boys. He was also charged with lying in connection with a Claus von Bulow’s attempted murder trial.

Von Bulow, who recently died, was convicted at one trial but acquitted at a second of trying to kill his socialite wife, Martha “Sunny” von Bulow. The charges against Magaldi were later dropped. He also faced allegations of abusing children in Texas, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The “perps,” though, are just “the tip of the problem,” Conlon said. The church and its leaders also need to step up, he said.

“They can gracefully acknowledge that what they did was truly wrong on a moral and legal level and stop hiding from that error and do justice by victims,” Conlon said.


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