Priest Lent Sex Abuse Lawsuit Credence

By Mary Jo Patterson
Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey)
April 29, 2002

In 1998, Monsignor Salvatore Adamo, a retired priest in the Diocese of Camden who was in his late 70s and ailing, decided to reveal a secret.

It was shocking but not out of character for Adamo, a former journalist with some unorthodox views who had often tangled with his bishop. He called a lawyer who had filed a class-action lawsuit that alleged the diocese had covered up child sex abuse and had protected pedophile priests for decades, and volunteered his thoughts. Then he put them down on paper.

"As the years of my earthly journey are ebbing, I am compelled to speak the truth as to the germination of tragic incidents of pedophilia and sexual abuse that is known to have become incessantly rampant in the diocese," Adamo said in a sworn statement filed in the case, "incidents which remain disclaimed as part of a concerted cover-up to avoid moral responsibility and financial culpability."

Adamo, who died last year at 81, went on to offer other startling opinions.

He claimed that his bishop, James T. McHugh, a defendant in the case and who is now deceased, had threatened to take away his job and his pension if he opened his mouth on the subject. He noted that McHugh's predecessor, the late Bishop George Guilfoyle, also a defendant, was derisively known as "Queen of the Fairies." He described a third church official, an alleged predator-priest, as Guilfoyle's "pimp" and said he hired "priests having a homosexual propensity." And he asserted that the diocese historically denied reports of sexual abuse in order to avoid scandal and taking a hit in the collection box.

"The silence of the decades must come to an end," he said.

That silence ended with a bang this month amid intense media coverage of the long-running civil case against the Camden Diocese, now in pretrial hearings before a state Superior Court judge in Atlantic City.

Two Delaware brothers now in their late 30s, Philip and Robert Young, provided graphic and sometimes tearful testimony about prolonged sexual abuse they said they suffered as boys from Philip Rigney, a retired priest of the Camden Diocese. Rigney, now 85 and living in Florida, has vigorously denied the attacks took place.

The Youngs and 17 other male and female plaintiffs in the case allege the diocese concealed their molestation, and should be held responsible and pay damages.

Because they all waited so long to sue, they must persuade a judge to set aside the statute of limitations in order for their lawsuit to proceed. A trial on the claims is by no means assured.

But a central issue in the lawsuit goes beyond individual allegations of abuse.

It also charges that numerous priests and officials in the Camden Diocese conspired to suppress reports of sexual misconduct, in violation of civil and criminal law and the rules of their church. Ten of the 15 accused priests are still living.

The claims, detailed in hundreds of pages filed by plaintiff attorney Stephen Rubino of Margate, are similar to allegations enveloping the Boston Archdiocese. A series of newspaper articles published earlier this year accused Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law of moving a predator priest from parish to parish despite evidence of abuse.

In the Diocese of Camden lawsuit, the conspiracy allegation has been strenuously denied.

"We feel there is no credible evidence of any conspiracy," Jay Devine said last week. Devine is a public relations consultant hired by Kenney and Kearney of Cherry Hill, the law firm representing the diocese.

Rubino's lawsuit, filed in 1994 , alleges that Camden Diocese officials "laid the groundwork" for such a conspiracy in the early 1950s. At that time, Rigney held two important positions in the diocese - vice chancellor to the bishop and director of vocations.

By 1964, the diocese employed "at least 15 known perpetrators" who sexually exploited minors, a number that would increase during the 1970s, court papers allege. By the 1980s, there were 34 individuals in the diocese who either committed sexual abuse or conspired to cover it up, the papers charge.

A few priests, who allegedly committed abuse but were protected, were eventually turned over to criminal authorities, the lawsuit concedes.

One defendant, the Rev. Patrick Weaver, for example, accused of molesting children at a parish in 1966, was "promoted" and transferred to another church, the court papers allege. However, 20 years later, accused anew, he found himself convicted in Superior Court in Camden of sexual assaults on children, the papers state.

More often, offenders were privately treated or admonished, the lawsuit alleges. In one such case, a priest was treated for pedophilia during four separate leaves of absence, yet returned to his priestly duties each time. No one in his parish learned of his background.

Philip and Robert Young testified earlier this month that they were 12 and 9 years old, respectively, when Rigney began groping them at night, reaching into their pajamas during overnight stays at his rectory or during family vacations. Rigney, a close family friend, accompanied them on vacations.

The fondling escalated into masturbation, oral sex and attempted sodomy, they testified.

In another case, a plaintiff alleges that a priest held a gun against his forehead and threatened to "blow off" his head if he disclosed the abuse. His claim for delayed discovery has yet to be heard. Church lawyers are expected to characterize him as a pathological liar.

In another alleged case, a New Jersey priest repeatedly took parish children out of state to engage in sexual games.

That chapter supposedly took place in the 1970s and '80s, when a South Jersey priest allegedly brought 10 New Jersey children to the home of his friend, a priest in Rhode Island.

Police reports in South Kingston, R.I., filed with the court papers, document that police there searched the priest's home in 1985 after receiving a complaint from a local resident. They recovered a guest book inscribed with the names of all children who visited, a pair of elastic restraints and a metal strong box containing a cache of photographs of nude boys.

In the late 1980s, the Rhode Island priest, William O'Connell, was convicted of multiple counts of sexually abusing children and defrocked. Thereafter, while still on probation, he relocated to New Jersey as a parish volunteer in the Camden Diocese, where he still had contact with children.

Although the Camden Diocese learned of O'Connell's conviction, as well as his relationship with the New Jersey priest, it did nothing to warn parishioners about their background, according to the lawsuit.

O'Connell, who was arrested in 1994 on sex abuse charges in New Jersey, has since died. The New Jersey priest, Joseph McGarvey, is a defendant in the case. Information about McGarvey's current status could not be obtained.

Testimony so far in the case has been limited to the critical issue confronting all the plaintiffs, namely their failure to file in a timely manner.

The Youngs, who were allegedly abused between 1974 and 1983, offered two reasons for bringing their case to the courthouse at such a late date.

Both claimed that it took them decades to understand that they had been harmed by Rigney - and thus had a cause for civil action. They also claimed that, as good Catholics, "religious duress" kept them from filing a lawsuit.

In 1984, when they reported the experience to then-Bishop Guilfoyle, he told them not to go to the authorities.

Attorneys for the brothers depicted them as psychologically scarred and tormented souls whose lives were wrecked by the alleged abuse.

Lawyers for the church - nine of them were at the defense table - attacked the brothers' credibility during methodical, hours-long cross-examinations.

They produced documentation from therapists and others showing that Philip Young viewed it as a source of his many problems for years.

The judge, John Himmelberger, will decide whether the Youngs can proceed with their case on Friday.

Identical hearings for the other plaintiffs will take place in the months to come.


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