A Secret Settlement, but Little Solace, for Family in Lawsuit Against Priest
By Alison Leigh Cowan
New York Times
March 24, 2002
By June of 2000, a lawsuit by the Nauheimer family against a Westchester County priest, the Rev. Gennaro Gentile, was down to a single claim of assault and battery. Other alleged encounters between the priest and the family's two sons had been thrown out because the statute of limitations had expired. The Archdiocese of New York, which had been a defendant when the suit was filed in August 1997, had also been dropped from the case.
But even then, the family's lawyer, Robert J. Hilpert, was sharply limited by the courts in what he could ask the priest in a formal deposition, about what had happened with the Nauheimer boys and what the priest might have done with other boys.
With a judge's ruling that Father Gentile's character could not be explored, the family could neither establish if the priest's seven jumps from parish to parish over 17 years resulted from people making similar claims nor if the contact with their younger son was merely friendly, as the priest insisted, or intended to be sexual.
A little over a year later, what had begun as a $55 million lawsuit was settled quietly, still shrouded in uncertainty. The lawyers and several principals are barred from talking about the case at all. But whatever the terms of the secret settlement, the court record and interviews with participants make clear that the case, as with many others like it involving emotional, intensely fought charges of abuse by clergy, resulted in no shortage of pain, confusion and lack of resolution.
The younger Nauheimer son -- whose lawyer had been barred from delving into the priest's past -- had to undergo psychological exams for the defense that concluded the boy, 13 years old at the time of the incident, had found the priest's touching him unwelcome because of his own latent insecurity about homosexuality. And a priest who came forward with information that there had been concerns about Father Gentile says he was branded a ''malcontent'' and punished for it.
Others who signed affidavits claiming Father Gentile had behaved inappropriately with them have no idea if their coming forward achieved anything; another family whose son was dragged into the case says they were disturbed to learn that money they received for counseling came out of a parish church fund earmarked for the indigent.
Father Gentile continues to work for the archdiocese, on marriage annulments. His brief assignment to a Bronx parish last year set off protests from parishioners who threatened to boycott the collection plate and keep their children home until he was removed. Neither Father Jerry, as he is known, nor his lawyer, Mark K. Malone, returned phone calls on Friday seeking to discuss the case.
The specter that a priest with problems might be shunted from parish to parish was precisely what drove the Nauheimers to court, judging from statements they made before they were barred from talking.
''Even though what happened to their children was not as serious as what happened to other kids, they felt they had an obligation to the other kids in the parish to try to expose this guy and stop him,'' said the Rev. Ron Lemmert, the former assistant pastor to Father Gentile, who cooperated with the Nauheimers.
Father Lemmert said he took some solace in knowing that for all the discomfort he and the Nauheimers have endured, his former supervisor now ''has a bell around his neck and wherever he goes that bell will go 'tinkle, tinkle,' '' he said.
At Church of the Holy Name of Mary, in Croton-on-Hudson, where Father Gentile worked at the time of the incidents, the allegations and their fallout have rippled through the community for years.
The contact between the Nauheimer boys and Father Gentile, a one-time family friend, began in 1993, according to the court record. The older son, Vincent Jr., said that on one occasion, the priest urged him to choose a gift from a men's clothing catalog that featured thongs and novelty items. Later that year, he said the priest invited him to his lakeside retreat, and offered a massage that the boy said he had to stop. The boy was 15 at the time and did not tell his parents.
The following year, Father Gentile was invited for dinner and to watch a video at the Nauheimer home. After dinner, the priest and Brian, who was 13 at the time, were alone in the basement watching ''Hobbit.'' According to Brian, the priest asked him to move closer and began twirling the boy's hair. When the contact shifted to his ear, neck and shoulders, Brian left the room and got his mother.
At first, the family was inclined to let the matter go. But after learning in 1997 that another teenage boy had had a similar encounter, they filed suit in Supreme Court in White Plains. They and their lawyer have said often that the case was never about money -- proceeds would go to fight sexual abuse, they pledged. Yet, $55 million was attached to the suit, and the diocese answered forcefully.
In an unusual tactic, Msgr. Edward O'Donnell, personnel director for the late Cardinal John J. O'Connor of the Archdiocese of New York, went to the pulpit of Holy Name of Mary and suggested at least to some of those in attendance that the case was without merit. And in his representation of Father Gentile, Mr. Malone included in his briefs the mother's income as a nurse, the father's recent unemployment and the brothers' tuition bills.
Mr. Malone also claimed that the father of the Nauheimer boys may have been motivated by a vendetta against the church because of his own sexual abuse as a child at the hands of a priest.
The family, though, kept on, gathering what they said was evidence to bolster its case, court records show. They found out that a priest as far back as 1971 warned church officials in somewhat cryptic phrases that Father Gentile might have problems. They asserted that law enforcement authorities had heard enough at one point to initiate a criminal review. And they obtained affidavits from two former parishioners -- including a police detective once honored at the White House -- who said they were groped by Father Gentile when they were children.
The family also obtained the cooperation of a crucial ally, Father Lemmert, a man who served side by side with Father Gentile for seven years as the associate pastor at Holy Name of Mary. His affidavit stated that Father Gentile had been warned more than once not to take children on overnight trips, which he kept doing.
But the Nauheimers soon encountered some of the problems in bringing such lawsuits in New York State. The statute of limitations meant that the two stronger claims involving Vincent Jr. were no good. Mr. Malone thereafter claimed that the case was about nothing but ''hair-twirling.''
The Archdiocese of New York then got removed from the case by arguing that the priest's conduct was outside the scope of his official duties and that the archdiocese's earliest possible glimmer of a problem was in December 1995, when an anonymous letter arrived, more than a year after the incidents with the Nauheimer boys.
The family also suffered several legal setbacks that hampered their ability to pin down whether complaints they had heard about might have contributed to Father Gentile's unusual number of transfers.
Most seriously, though, they saw their sons' lives pried open in harsh ways. One low was the examination Brian underwent last year by a forensic psychologist chosen by the defense. Court papers show that Brian, by then a college sophomore, bristled at the questions and cut the exam short. Nonetheless, the examiner felt confident enough to prepare an 11-page report that the plaintiff, in accusing the priest of sexual intent without concrete proof, must have been suffering from a relatively common case of ''homosexual panic.''
Technically, Father Lemmert is one of the few allowed to comment, though he, too, says he has been rebuked by church officials for talking too much already. He admits that he and Father Gentile ''had our differences'' almost from the moment Father Lemmert arrived at Holy Name of Mary in 1988 as the associate pastor, but that none of that colored his actions in the case.
It was Father Lemmert who wrote the anonymous letter to the Archdiocese of New York's headquarters in Manhattan in December 1985. It outlined Father Gentile's fondness for having teenage boys join him for ''overnight'' stays at the rectory and ''weeklong vacations.'' The letter's author explained he was afraid of signing his name because of ''reprisals.''
By the following November, Father Lemmert said he felt compelled to take a more personal risk. He said he called Monsignor O'Donnell in the fall of 1996, when he learned that another teenager who had become extremely depressed told authorities that he was abused by Father Gentile.
Father Lemmert says he followed up with a letter on Nov. 7, 1996, to Monsignor O'Donnell naming three other priests who warned Father Gentile to discontinue the unchaperoned overnights. ''It came as a great shock one week later when I learned he was taking four teenagers on a week's vacation to Pennsylvania,'' wrote Father Lemmert. ''Perhaps he had no control over himself.''
Father Lemmert shared a fear as well with Monsignor O'Donnell of what would become of him if Father Gentile believed him to be the whistleblower. He did not have to wait long to find out. On Dec. 2, 1996, Father Gentile wrote to Father Lemmert asking for the return of keys to the church since his services were no longer required. Two days later, Father Gentile again wrote Father Lemmert that it would be ''inappropriate'' for him to attend Mass and sing in the choir. Father Lemmert says he was unable to perform weddings or funerals for parishioners who asked.
He had become a chaplain at the prison in Ossining the year before, and so had a place to worship and a job. Still, Father Lemmert said, ''I couldn't step foot in the church.'' Only recently, with the arrival of a new pastor at Holy Name of Mary, has he felt welcome again.
When Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, was asked about the Nauheimer case, he said he had few answers.
The most he could do, he said, was to confirm that Father Gentile's status in the church had not changed. He is in good standing.