Priestly Abuse Price Tag: $5M
Paterson Diocese Settles with 27 Victims of Molestation

By John Chadwick
February 16, 2005

The Paterson Diocese, seeking to close a dark chapter in its history, has agreed to pay $5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by 27 men who said they were molested by priests.

The settlement - which also requires the diocese to pay for four years of counseling for each victim - is the largest paid by a New Jersey diocese in a sexual abuse case.

The deal came nearly three years after some of the plaintiffs - emboldened by an escalating national church crisis - went public with graphic stories of sexual abuse in a Morris County church rectory.

The revelations shocked North Jersey Catholics, forced then-Bishop Frank Rodimer to apologize, and served notice that the scandal exploding in Boston was afflicting Catholic communities nationwide.

"This has been an incredible journey of pain and sacrifice," Gregory Gianforcaro, a lawyer for 26 of the accusers, said at a news conference Tuesday. "Many of these plaintiffs were my friends as I was growing up."

Twenty-one of the plaintiffs said they were molested by the same priest - James T. Hanley - while he served at parishes in Mendham and Pequannock from 1968 to 1982.

One of Hanley's accusers said the settlement brings him no healing.

"It won't allow me to be 12 years old again and have the luxury of discovering sexual intimacy on my own terms," said Ben Cotton, 42, who said he was molested by Hanley at St. Joseph's Church in Mendham. "No one can ever give me that, and it has screwed up my whole life."

Hanley, 68, was permanently removed from the clergy, or laicized, two years ago. He lives in a low-income apartment in Paterson. He has never been charged with a crime, but admitted in a sworn statement that he molested at least a dozen boys.

The lawsuit - filed in January 2004 in state Superior Court, Morristown - sought to hold the diocese responsible for the abuse and alleged that Rodimer knew or should have known about Hanley's actions.

The diocese vowed to fight the suit.

But new Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli, acting through intermediaries, approached the plaintiffs in December seeking a settlement.

The plaintiff's lawyer praised Serratelli.

"I am convinced he is a kind and compassionate man who is trying to assist victims in their healing," Gianforcaro said.

Some plaintiffs were nevertheless skeptical. They said the diocese started pursuing a settlement only after Judge Deanne M. Wilson refused its motion to dismiss the case in November.

They also cited a movement in Trenton aimed at amending the state's powerful Charitable Immunity Act, which shields the church and other non-profits from costly negligence suits.

"This lawsuit was settled because of a number of political and legal market conditions," Cotton said.

Under the terms of the settlement, the diocese admits no wrongdoing or liability. The plaintiffs had initially sought for priests' confidential personnel files to be opened. But they dropped those demands in the face of refusal by the diocese.

A spokeswoman for Serratelli said the diocese will pay the $5 million from a reserve fund and from interest income. The diocese said it won't dip into money donated during fund-raising campaigns or earmarked for schools and church programs.

"I hope this will bring closure for all those involved [in] a long and painful experience for our church," Serratelli said in a statement. "We look forward to conciliation and healing."

The lawsuit also named as defendant the Rev. Jose Alonso, a Paterson priest who was sentenced to five years in prison in 1988 for sexually assaulting two altar boys. Alonso died several years ago. Another defendant - Deacon Carlos Guzman - no longer works for the diocese, spokeswoman Marianna Thompson said.

Three additional priests named in the suit still serve in parishes because the diocese found no evidence of wrongdoing during an internal review. Those priests are the Rev. Thomas Rainforth, the Rev. Donald Sella and the Rev. Julian Varettoni.

But it was Hanley who was the central figure in the case. His accusers described him as larger than life - a genial, humorous priest who took them under his wing like a fun-loving uncle.

"He was basically the knight in shining armor that came into town for the kids," said Ray Sketinni, who said he was abused by Hanley in the 1960s at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Pequannock. "He taught me how to play the guitar, and he taught me how to sing."

Sketinni, and others, said Hanley abused them under the guise of teaching them about sex.

"He would show me things, and ask me questions, and one thing led to another," Sketinni, a 48-year-old Sussex County resident, said. "That's how I was abused."

The accusers said Hanley had a sharp eye for boys who lacked confidence. And he could deftly disarm them, gain their trust and leave them feeling too compromised to complain.

"He would get in my face and say, 'You need me, I'm teaching you things you would never have learned otherwise,'-" Cotton said. "It would make you feel like you were lucky to have him for a friend."

The diocese, which serves 377,000 Catholics in Passaic, Morris and Sussex counties, faces several smaller lawsuits in connection with sexual abuse claims, though only one of them involves a priest. The diocese still has to conclude disciplinary proceedings for about a half-dozen priests accused of abuse.

A spokesman for the Newark Archdiocese, which covers Bergen, Hudson, Essex and Union counties, said he is unaware of any major sexual abuse lawsuits facing the archdiocese. The archdiocese paid $1 million last year to settle 10 allegations of sexual abuse against nine priests.

The clergy scandal nationwide

*-A study sanctioned by the U.S. bishops found that 4,392 clerics were accused of molesting 10,667 minors from 1950 to 2002.

*-At least 700 priests have been removed from public ministry since the abuse crisis erupted in Boston in January 2002.

*-Publicly announced settlements have reached at least $790 million since 1950, and three dioceses have filed for bankruptcy protection in the face of multimillion-dollar abuse claims.

*-Hundreds of additional claims are pending against dioceses in California and other states.


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