New sex abuse and ‘grooming’ allegations target former Staten Island priest
By Kyle Lawson
Staten Island Avance
January 02, 2021
|This 1987 file photo shows the front of St. Clare's R.C. Church in Great Kills, around the time plaintiffs claim they were sexually abused by former priest Ralph LaBelle.|
Former priest Ralph LaBelle has again been accused of sexually abusing a young male parishioner on Staten Island.
According to a civil complaint filed last week in Richmond County state Supreme Court, St. George, the victim was “groomed” and sexually abused between the ages of 13 and 16-years-old.
At the time, LaBelle was assigned to St. Clare’s R.C. Church in Great Kills. He was there from 1979 to 1985.
The plaintiff, Donald O’Brien, is seeking damages from the Archdiocese of New York and St. Clare’s for “severe and permanent” injuries that have included “pain, suffering, emotional trauma and humiliation.”
LaBelle already was included on a list of clergy credibly accused of abuse unveiled in April 2019 by the Archdiocese of New York. He was laicized in 2005, after several victims had come forward.
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York would not comment Tuesday on specific claims made in the lawsuit, per the religious organization’s protocol regarding complaints brought under the Child Victims Act. Though he did point to the fact that LaBelle was removed from the Church several years ago.
“Great progress has been made in both responding to those who bring allegations, and to ensuring that everything possible is done to protect young people in our parishes, schools and institutions,” said spokesman Joseph Zwilling.
In 2019, state lawmakers allowed a one-year window for adults who allege they were sexually abused as children to sue for damages — foregoing the statute of limitations for civil cases.
The range of complaints sent shockwaves across Staten Island, with lawsuits being filed against Roman Catholic schools and churches, a youth athletic institution and even one man’s parents.
That window has since been extended to August, 2021.
Also named in multiple complaints is former Great Kills youth athletics coach Tony Sagona, who also at one time was viewed by many as a respected leader and mentor for young males on Staten Island.
Named in lawsuits filed on Wednesday are, from left, Monsignor Farrell High School, Monsignor Raphael Pakulniewicz, St. Clare's Church and Monsignor John Paddack.
“TARGETED” AND “GROOMED”
According to the most recent complaint against LaBelle, the former priest used information he had gained about O’Brien’s father being an alcoholic— which the victim claims wasn’t shared publicly—to develop a personal relationship with the teenager.
The plaintiff was 13-years-old in 1983, which is about the time he was “targeted” and “groomed” for sexual contact by LaBelle, the complaint alleges.
Acting as a mentor, the former priest would offer life guidance, while also discussing activities the teen was passionate about, including basketball. The complaint alleges LaBelle would at times buy O’Brien and his friends beer.
At a certain point during their regular conversations, LaBelle allegedly began touching O’Brien inappropriately on the thigh and would kiss his face. Ultimately it escalated into “sexual abuse,” according to the suit.
The “touching incidents” would occur in public parks, the schoolyard of PS 8, by the Great Kills Harbor Bay and at the plaintiff’s home, according to the plaintiff.
At one point, around 1986 or 1987, O’Brien recalls, the clergyman filmed him shirtless at a baseball field while instructing him through different poses.
As a person of power who was respected within the community, O’Brien came to think of the behavior as acceptable, according to the complaint, which reads similar to other stories of abuse shared recently by other complainants borough-wide.
WHERE IS HE NOW?
Throughout his career, LaBelle was assigned to parishes in the Bronx, Manhattan, and finally upstate in Patterson, N.Y.
According to what appears to be a LinkedIn account for the disgraced clergyman, he remains the president of a nonprofit called The LaBelle Foundation, which he formed in 1993 to provide “funds for college education or uninsured medical expenses of individuals from dysfunctional or impoverished backgrounds.”
Photos of LaBelle online are scarce. In fact, a search by the Advance/SILive.com only turned up one image— a photo of a photo that was hanging on a bulletin board inside Sacred Heart Church, the last parish he served before being named publicly by the Archdiocese as a credible abuser.
From 2006 to 2008, he apparently worked as an assistant manager at Standard and Poor’s, a U.S. credit rating agency. The account indicates his most recent paid position as an office manager with H&R Block.
CHURCH ACCUSED OF NEGLIGENCE
The latest complaint against LaBelle was drafted by New Jersey-based attorney Brad Rice, who has handled several similar cases in recent years.
In the suit, Rice states that despite what was, or should have been, knowledge of sexual abuse by priests in the years leading up to the abuse of O’Brien, neither party took steps “to protect the children under their control, and instead took steps to protect the abusers within their organizations.”
Furthermore, Rice states, the position for which LaBelle was retained by the Archdiocese and St. Clare’s required him to work closely with, mentor and counsel young boys.
Employees, agents, and volunteers of the Archdiocese and St. Clare’s witnessed Rev. LaBelle “spending inordinate amounts of time with plaintiff and either knew or should have known” of LaBelle’s nefarious intentions.
ANOTHER STATEN ISLANDER WHO CAME FORWARD
O’Brien isn’t the first former Staten Islander, or New Yorker, to come forward with allegations against LaBelle.
In 2019, former Staten Island resident Christopher Hansen filed a suit claiming he was “groomed” and then abused by LaBelle between the ages of 14 and 16. Hansen’s family also attended Mass at St. Clare’s.
Hansen’s suit remains ongoing, currently in the discovery process.
His complaint was similar to that of O’Brien, stating the priest would invite him to his private quarters, serve him beer and “engage in discussions of a sexual nature.”
Both O’Brien and Hansen have moved away from Staten Island since the time of the alleged abuse.
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