Suit Accuses Priest of Abuse
A N.J. Man Says a Former Phila. Priest Abused Him As a Youth. the Priest Is Now in South America
By Maria Panaritis
April 29, 2003
A New Jersey man sued the Archdiocese of Philadelphia yesterday, contending that he was sexually abused several times by a Roman Catholic priest when he was young.
It is the first such lawsuit known to have been filed against the archdiocese, which covers five counties of Southeastern Pennsylvania, since last year's nationwide wave of revelations about children being abused by priests.
In the civil action, filed in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, Louis Aquilino contends that the Rev. Michael J. Donofrio, now on assignment in Peru, abused him in the early 1980s at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in South Philadelphia, in the basement of a Plymouth Meeting house, and in a car on the way to the Shore.
Donofrio, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, served at St. Thomas from 1982 to 1986 and later at St. Henry's in North Philadelphia before being reassigned to a mission in rural Peru in the early 1990s, according to church directories.
Archdiocesan officials could not provide an immediate response to the lawsuit, filed just minutes before the close of business yesterday.
Donofrio's stepfather, Frank Ciaccio, a retired Norristown police officer, said last night that his son had never been accused of such things before. Ciaccio said his son had devoted himself to helping homeless children in an Andean village and had volunteered for missionary work in Latin America after learning Spanish.
"I stand by my son 100 percent," Ciaccio said.
Aquilino, who was around 12 at the time of the alleged abuse, never sought criminal charges. He became fully aware of his right to pursue legal action only last year, his lawyer said yesterday, after patterns of cover-ups and transfers of abusive priests in dioceses elsewhere in the nation became widely reported.
"It is clear that we did not know - and the public did not know - until very recently that the Catholic Church knew about this and addressed this by transferring priests and not taking specific actions against these particular priests and not informing the public," said George M. Vinci, Aquilino's lawyer.
Along with claims of negligence, battery, and inflicting emotional distress, the suit accuses the priest, St. Thomas Aquinas Church, and the archdiocese of fraudulent concealment. Based on "information and belief," the complaint contends, abusive priests were transferred in order to conceal allegations from the public.
A major issue likely to arise quickly is whether Aquilino is eligible to pursue legal action under Pennsylvania law. The state does not recognize civil claims of abuse as a minor if the alleged victim does not make the claim by age 30. Aquilino is 33.
Pennsylvania's statute of limitations has been considered a deterrent against filing civil-abuse claims. Only a few such claims have been filed against the Philadelphia archdiocese in two decades. The archdiocese has said it clamped down on abusive priests years ago.
For his part, according to the complaint, Aquilino did not begin to recall the abuse until March 2002 - at age 32 - while watching the movie E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial with his children.
It was after seeing that movie in the early 1980s with Donofrio, the lawsuit says, that Aquilino was taken to a furnished basement in a nearby house, where the priest allegedly tried to force himself upon the boy.
In an interview, Aquilino said he had told his wife-to-be in 1992 that a priest had tried to abuse him. His lawyer said yesterday that Aquilino did not become "fully aware" that he had actually been abused until he saw E.T. again years later.
The suit claims that Donofrio performed sex acts on Aquilino in the church basement and fondled him during unsupervised trips to the Shore. The most traumatic episode was after the priest took him to see E.T., Aquilino said.
"I just knew at the time that something was seriously wrong - and that's when I stopped all contact with the church," said Aquilino, a contractor who is married with children and lives in Turnersville.
"He was taking me down the Shore, buying me a basketball, taking me to the movies - things my parents could never do," Aquilino said.
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