Catholic Church, Boy Scouts hit with dozens of sex abuse suits under new N.J. law extending victims’ rights to sue

By Jeremy Roebuck
Philadelphia Inquirer
December 02, 2019

Sisters Patty Fortney-Julius, Lara Fortney McKeever (second from left), Teresa Forteny-Miller (second from right), and Carolyn Fortney sit behind pictures of themselves as children as they listen to an attorney speak to reporters during a news conference in Newark.

John Bellocchio, a survivor of abuse, speaks to reporters during a news conference in Newark. Lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy are taking center stage in New Jersey as the state's relaxation of statute of limitations rules takes effect. Bellocchio's lawsuit accuses defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of the Newark diocese.

Dozens of new allegations of sexual abuse against priests and scoutmasters have surfaced after New Jersey opened a two-year window granting victims a second chance to pursue court claims that had been barred by time limits.

New lawsuits filed Sunday and Monday include allegations against six priests in the Camden Diocese as well as previously undisclosed claims involving the now-defrocked cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Newark.

In another new filing, a 59-year-old man accused the Archdiocese of Philadelphia of failing to stop his abuser, Bucks County priest Francis Trauger. When his parents turned to another cleric to counsel their son, his lawsuit alleges, that priest took him on a trip to the Shore and molested him as well.

In all, more than 50lawsuits — some with allegations dating as far back as the 1950s — have been filed against Roman Catholic dioceses in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York and other institutions since the “statute-of-limitations lookback window” went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

The Boy Scouts alone were hit with more than 20 suits before courts had even opened Monday, most of them from one firm representing dozens of plaintiffs. Because the organization was based in North Brunswick, N.J., from 1954 to 1979, sex abuse claims from across the country during that period are eligible to be heard in New Jersey’s courts.

The total number of lawsuits filed is expected to climb into the hundreds by the time the state closes the window in December 2021, plaintiff’s attorneys said.

“Today is a momentous day, because we can finally move forward in our pursuit of justice,” said Patty Fortney-Julius, a Harrisburg woman who filed suit Monday against the Archdiocese of Newark and Diocese of Harrisburg for abuse she and her four sisters endured for years. “Today is not just about telling our story. Today is about finally having the chance to get answers.”

The wave of suits was made possible by New Jersey’s new law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in May, and could put institutions on the hook for millions of dollars in court judgments and settlements in courthouses from North Jersey to the southern end of the Shore.

In anticipation, New Jersey’s bishops have spent the last year selling off property, bolstering their insurance policies and encouraged victims to accept financial settlements from specially launched compensation funds.

The program, launched by New Jersey’s dioceses in June, has received 202 claims and paid out $4.7 million as of last month, according to a spokeswoman.

Under the previous law, people had two years to file from the time they realized they had been harmed by abuse. The new law extends the statute of limitations, allowing people to sue until they turn 55. It also opened the two-year window for sex abuse claims no matter when they occurred.

More than a dozen states have considered similar bills, spurred by the #MeToo movement and the 2018 grand jury report outlining decades of abuse and cover-ups in six of Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses. Efforts to pass a window law in Pennsylvania have been met with fierce opposition from Catholic leaders and the Boy Scouts, who have argued that lifting the statute of limitations would subject them to a flood of lawsuits with allegations too old to defend against.

The volume of new litigation in the first days of the New Jersey window was not quite the frenzy some had predicted.

When New York opened a similar window in August, limited to one year, more than 400 cases were filed on the first day, and that number has since reached more than 1,000.

As of 5 p.m. Monday, each of New Jersey’s five Roman Catholic dioceses had been named as a defendant in at least one lawsuit. That included at least nine filed against the Diocese of Camden, at least five naming the Trenton Diocese, and at least eight against the Archdiocese of Newark.

Newark church officials, like those in all of the other dioceses sued this week, declined to address the specific allegations in the new lawsuits. But in an email that echoed similar to statements from Catholic leaders across New Jersey, a spokesperson said the archdiocese “will continue to cooperate and work with victims, their legal representatives, and law enforcement authorities in an ongoing effort to resolve allegations made and bring closure to victims.”

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Allentown were also sued by plaintiffs alleging that Pennsylvania priests abused them on trips across the Delaware River, including one woman who said she first met Allentown priest Joseph A. Rock as a 13-year-old in Atlantic City only to be tormented by him for the next 11 years.

The now 58-year-old woman, identified in court filings as Jane Doe, maintained that Rock, who has been defrocked, forced her into oral and anal sex from the day he first offered to babysit her in 1974 and on trips to the Shore.

When she finally tried to cut off contact after she had moved on to college, she said in court papers, Rock blackmailed her with nude photos and videos he had taken of her since she was a girl.

Rock, who now lives in Bethlehem, Pa., has repeatedly declined to comment on repeated allegations lodged against him by multiple accusers between 1985 and 2001. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

Also silent were Trauger and John Schmeer, both of whom were accused in a lawsuit of abusing an altar boy from East Norriton, Montgomery County, starting when he was 11.

Their alleged victim, now 50, said in a lawsuit Monday that his parents suggested in 1981 that he talk to Schmeer — a friend of the family and teacher at what was then Bishop Kenrick High School in Norristown — after he first alleged Trauger had abused him.

But Schmeer, the suit states, invited him into his bedroom at the rectory of St. Titus parish and steered the conversation toward the boy’s masturbatory habits, and began to rub his genitals. Similar abuse allegedly continued throughout the man’s high school years and during a 1982 trip to Mystic Island in Little Egg Harbor Township.

“Throughout his life since the abuse, [the accuser] has struggled with anger and rage problems ... inability to maintain healthy relationships and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” his lawsuit says.

Like Trauger and Schmear, most of the priests named in the new filings Sunday and Monday had been publicly identified as “credibly accused” by their dioceses and removed from ministry — in some cases decades ago.

Schmear was removed from ministry in 2005 and continues to live a “life of prayer and penance” under archdiocesan monitoring. Trauger, who was accused by more than a dozen minors, was criminally charged this year in Bucks County in a separate abuse case and has denied the charges.

In Camden, new lawsuits were filed naming previously identified alleged abusers, including the Rev. Patrick Weaver, formerly of St. Mary parish in Cherry Hill; the Rev. Norman T. Connelly, formerly of St. John the Evangelist in Paulsboro; the Rev. Jay Shannon, formerly of St. John’s in Collingswood; and the Revs. John Kelly and John Bernard, both of St. Gregory in Magnolia.

The record of McCarrick, the now defrocked 89-year-old cardinal, has also been scrutinized by plaintiff’s lawyers, his fellow U.S. bishops, and the Vatican since he was first accused of sexually assaulting minors and adult seminarians in the ‘90s.

Still, new accuser John Bellocchio — who sued Monday over abuse he says he endured at 14, when McCarrick visited his parish in Hackensack in the 1990s — said he felt it was important to file suit to learn what exactly Vatican officials knew about McCarrick’s conduct and when.

Bellocchio, 37, said: “He never would have been able to do the things he did and rise up the ranks the way he did without their complicity or consent, implied or otherwise.”




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