Church Told to Show Files in Priest's Abuse Case

By Peter J. Sampson
The Record [Bergen County, NJ]
November 18, 1998

Two brothers who worshiped at St. Anthony Roman Catholic Church in Northvale in their youth came a step closer Tuesday to discovering what church officials knew about a priest accused of sexually abusing them 30 years ago.

In a decision released in Trenton, a three-judge appellate panel reversed a lower court ruling that denied Thomas and Michael J. Corsie access to the personnel file and other records of Michael Campanalonga, a former priest.

The appeals court directed the Archdiocese of Newark, one of the defendants in the four-year-old suit, to surrender 200 documents to Superior Court Judge Carol A. Ferentz in Newark for her private inspection.

The judge will then determine which papers should be turned over to the plaintiffs and which are protected by the cleric-penitent privilege that covers confessions and similar communications made in confidence between an individual and a spiritual adviser.

Springfield attorney Michael J. Geron said his client, Thomas Corsie, was gratified that the legal roadblock has been lifted. "He feels vindicated, and his faith is restored in the judicial system,"said Geron, who pressed the appeal on behalf of both brothers. "We're working on the faith relative to the church." The Corsies, who are seeking more than $ 5 million in damages, claim that Campanalonga sexually molested and assaulted them in the late 1960s. They also allege that the parish and the archdiocese failed to protect them from a priest they knew was a pedophile.

Campanalonga, who served as an assistant at the Northvale parish from 1965 to 1973 and organized summer camps for the Catholic Youth Organization, was permanently suspended in 1993 after refusing to undergo a psychiatric evaluation when allegations of sexual misconduct were made. Permanent suspension means he may no longer represent himself as a priest.

Campanalonga, who moved to Florida, never responded to the lawsuit and a default judgment was entered against him. Attorneys for the brothers last year asked Ferentz to privately review the archdiocese's files on Campanalonga, but the request was rejected even though the church raised no objection.

The appeals court agreed that "confessions"or confidential communications made to the vicar for priests, who serves as a confidant to priests in need, are protected by privilege and cannot be disclosed. However, it also agreed with the plaintiffs that every document in the vicar's file is not necessarily privileged, and said it was regrettable that the judge didn't examine the file to determine which were were not protected.

As for other records not in the vicar's file, the appeals court found no justification for the archdiocese to withhold them. "If the First Amendment does not shield the clergy from state action involving alleged sexual misconduct, it follows that it does not protect against application of judicial discovery rules to uncover relevant material in personnel files related to that alleged sexual misconduct,"the opinion said.

The archdiocese has said it first heard of alleged wrongdoing by the priest in February 1993, when a letter came to Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, leader of 1.3 million Roman Catholics in North Jersey. In the letter, Michael Corsie, a former Northvale resident who lives in Palisades, N.Y., said he and his younger brother were sexually molested and raped by the priest and he kept quiet out of guilt and fear that no one would believe him. He said he was coming forward on the advice of his therapist to protect other children.

The attorney for the archdiocese could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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