Former Staten Island priest ‘groomed’ and sexually abused boy, another lawsuit alleges
By Frank Donnelly
Staten Island Advance
February 06, 2021
Former priest Ralph LaBelle plied a young parishioner with beer and Rangers’ hockey tickets to gain the boy’s trust and sexually abuse him, a lawsuit alleges.
Recently filed in state Supreme Court, St. George, the suit is the latest involving allegations of molestation against LaBelle while he was assigned to St. Clare’s R.C. Church in Great Kills.
A civil complaint names the Archdiocese of New York and St. Clare’s as defendants.
LaBelle first abused the plaintiff around 1987 when he was 11 years old, alleges the complaint.
He continued to molest the youngster about “a dozen times” over the course of two years, the complaint alleges.
“LaBelle was a sexual predator and was engaged in a sexually inappropriate relationship with plaintiff,” the complaint contends. “LaBelle was a trusted authority figure within the church and community … (and) took advantage of the status and credibility afforded him by St. Clare’s and the Archdiocese of New York and exploited his position to gain plaintiff’s trust and abuse him.”
The defendants “took no steps to prevent or stop the abuse of plaintiff,” the complaint alleges.
In April 2019, the Archdiocese unveiled a list of clergy credibly accused of abuse. LaBelle was among those named.
He was laicized in 2005, after several victims had come forward.
The plaintiff, listed in the filing under the pseudonym “John Doe 5,” suffered “emotional and psychological trauma and humiliation,” said the complaint.
As a result, he has “struggled with drug addiction from an early age” and has been arrested “numerous times” for theft and assault, the complaint maintains.
At present, the plaintiff is incarcerated in Arizona, said the complaint.
He seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
“This is yet another lawsuit involving abuse by Father LaBelle,” said Bradley L. Rice, the plaintiff’s lawyer.
Joseph Zwilling, an Archdiocese spokesman, did not comment on the specific allegations in the lawsuit, per church policy on active cases filed under the Child Victims Act.
But he did say the Archdiocese “takes all allegations of sexual abuse seriously and responds with compassion and respect.”
“We have made great strides both in responding to victim-survivors, but also putting into place measures in our parishes, schools, and other agencies, including background checks and safe environment training, to ensure that such acts never happen again,” said Zwilling.
CHILD VICTIMS ACT
Enacted in August 2019, the Child Victims Act created a one-year window for plaintiffs of any age to sue alleged abusers regardless of when the abuse occurred.
That window has since been extended to August 2021.
The law also allows victims of sexual abuse to sue their alleged abuser any time before they turn 55.
The range of complaints sent shockwaves across Staten Island, with lawsuits being filed against Roman Catholic schools and churches, the Boy Scouts, a youth athletic institution and even one man’s parents.
The complaint alleges LaBelle first approached the plaintiff in a playground at PS 8, near St. Clare’s. His recognized the priest because his family was parishioners.
LaBelle then began “grooming” the boy, spending time with him, alleges the complaint.
Among other things, the priest allegedly offered the plaintiff and other kids Communion out of the back of his white Mazda van.
He even took them to his vacation home in the Poconos, the complaint alleges.
LaBelle sought to curry favor with the plaintiff by buying him beer and giving him gifts, including Rangers’ tickets, alleges the complaint.
One time, he allegedly took the boy to a Rangers’ game.
On the car ride home, the priest pulled over in Great Kills and began kissing the boy’s cheek. He also grabbed the youngster’s genitals, the complaint alleges.
Because LaBelle was priest and friend, the boy mistakenly believed their relationship was “normal,” said the complaint.
The priest went on to abuse the plaintiff about 12 times over two years, the complaint alleges.
The plaintiff is at least the fourth individual to sue the Archdiocese alleging LaBelle molested them while assigned to St. Clare’s.
K.M., a Manhattan resident and former St. Clare’s parishioner, alleges the priest sexually abused him around 1979 “including during his first reconciliation and church services.”
He was about 6 years old then.
In a separate suit, Donald O’Brien alleges LaBelle “groomed” and sexually abused him in the mid-1980s when he was between the ages of 13 and 16.
LaBelle was also assigned to St. Clare’s then.
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.
Those suits are all pending.