Woman: Priest Admits to Sex Abuse in Unsigned '91 Letter

By Karen Freifeld
April 22, 2002

A Long Island woman says the Rev. James Smith, whom she accuses of molesting her at a Queens Catholic school when she was 10 or 11 years old, admitted his "perverse behavior" in a letter to her, writing "I don't blame you if you curse me."

Carol Poppito, 41, who attended Holy Trinity School in Whitestone in the early 1970s, said Smith - "everybody's favorite priest" - would take her out of class several times a year, from the time she was in the fifth or sixth grade until eighth grade, and molest her in the stairwell and an empty nurse's office.

"I would just stare at a spot on the wall," she said.

Smith, 71, was forced to step down as pastor of St. Kevin's Church in Flushing last month amid allegations he had sexually molested three boys at Holy Trinity Church two decades ago, according to the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Queens.

Since then, more than two dozen other people have made allegations against Smith, whose departure came as the Catholic Church is reeling from a sex scandal in which dozens of priests around the country have been accused of sexual misconduct with minors.

Poppito, who lives in Farmingville, said Smith had warned her, "Don't tell anybody," and "Don't tell your father," a police lieutenant, about the abuse. Poppito said it wasn't until she was on a car trip with her mother and other family members in 1991 that she revealed the secret she had been carrying for 20 years.

"For me it was like a weight being lifted off my shoulders," she said. "For them, it was like getting hit with a piano."

Poppito said her mother tracked Smith down at St. Kevin's and called him. A few days later, she said, she received a two-page letter allegedly written by Smith, asking forgiveness and telling her how much he hated himself.

"For the last two days, on your mom's good advice, I have begged the Holy Spirit ... to guide my pen at this moment, when I write to you, full of shame, sorrow and fear that you will spit at it and tear it up," said the letter, which was not signed and has no names on it. "You must hate me more than I still hate myself. You must be more angry with me than I could ever rage against my past. I cannot blame you. I deserve it.

"Twenty years ago, a man I don't know anymore, depressed and sick in mind, offended you terribly, destroyed your trust and left a scar," the letter continued.

"I have always cringed with horror and regret when it comes to mind. It was all my fault."

Smith, who has been sent to an out-of-state facility for counseling, could not be reached to comment yesterday.

Diocese spokesman Frank DeRosa called the letter "a touching reflection by an anguished priest" after it was read to him.

"It sounds like a man with a conscience who was regretting things he may have done in the past," DeRosa said. "My inclination is probably to say it's all true."

Poppito said she had a different reaction when she read the letter a decade ago.

"I wanted to throw up," she said. The letter was confirmation that "it really did happen. It wasn't a bad dream I made up."

In the letter, the writer details the help he had sought.

"It's too late to do you any good now, I know ... but I went to a psychotherapist and a psychiatrist. They found reasons for my perverse behavior and depression and showed me the way out. There was no excuse. It was inexcusable," the letter said.

The letter then went on to say the writer was attending to "never-ending duties of penance and reparations," working with AIDS patients, the elderly and first offenders. It also said the writer had started Alcoholics Anonymous groups.

"I know that in any 12-step program there is no stopping at those early steps," the letter said. "I realized my own powerlessness over my compulsion ... I must make amends and peace with someone, anyone, whom I have hurt by my actions.

"I wish I could wave a magic wand and help you forget I even existed. Better if I hadn't. If I do come to mind, I don't blame you if you curse me."

Poppito, who works as an ultrasound technician, said that because of the abuse she does not trust anyone with her children.

"I sit in the pouring rain ... during their football practices, their lacrosse practices," she said.

Poppito said she thought about taking legal action a few years ago, but the statute of limitations had run out. Sexual misconduct with minors generally must be prosecuted within five years after a victim turns 18.

Manhattan attorney Michael Dowd is representing about 30 people - most of them boys, but several girls - who claim they were sexually abused by Smith when he was a priest at Holy Trinity in the '70s and at Our Lady of Grace Church in Howard Beach in the late '50s and early '60s.

Some of those victims also said they were taken out of class.

"We're hoping that the diocese says great wrongs were committed, children were injured and we'd like to redress those wrongs and help the victims of these priests, including Father Smith," Dowd said in an interview.

DeRosa said Dowd should broach the issue with the diocese directly. "We've attempted to help the victims who came to us," he said. "Generally, the hope is to get some kind of pastoral assistance," including money.

Poppito said, "I would love for my parents to get their tuition back for sending their seven children to Holy Trinity instead of PS 149 to keep us safe."


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