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34 File Suit In Sex Abuse Claim

They say the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., did not protect children from predatory priests and also concealed the problem

Apr 15, 2003 | Newsday

Claiming the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., failed to protect children in Catholic churches and schools from predatory priests and then deliberately concealed the problem, 34 men filed lawsuits in State Supreme Court in Mineola, N.Y., on Monday asking for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages because they said they were sexually abused.

The two lawsuits detail alleged abuse by 17 priests and two religious brothers in incidents that span almost the entire history of the Long Island diocese, which was founded in 1957. The suits claim the diocese should pay monetary damages to these men because for decades there was "a deliberate covert policy" of hindering the criminal prosecution of priests and preventing the filing of civil lawsuits by victims. This was done to prevent "scandal among parishioners and public" and "the loss of financial contributions," according to the legal papers.

Page after page of the lawsuits portray what the accusers see as a betrayal of trust by priests who were honored and revered in their parishes. Almost every one of the men who claimed they were abused went to parochial schools or were altar servers and came from families who were very involved in their parishes and Catholic life.

Many of their parents were religious education teachers and members of the Rosary and Holy Name societies. They let their sons go on overnight trips with priests -- where the abuse often began -- and then their alleged victims watched as the same priests later came to their homes for dinner, baptized their siblings and married and buried family members.

"Our parents thought they were doing the right thing to make us go to religious education and join a church group so we wouldn't be hanging out on the street corner. It turned out to be the worst experience of our lives," said Brian Compasso, a 42-year-old clerk at a 7-Eleven store who lives in Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y.

The lawsuits come two months after a scathing Suffolk County grand jury report described how priests accused of molesting children were shuffled to different parishes and how the diocese used "deception and intimidation" to deal with their accusers.

The diocese is expected to ask the court to dismiss the lawsuits because the claims are filed too late. If the lawsuits overcome this major legal hurdle, the litigation could result in the release of internal church documents and sworn statements by its top officials.

"The diocese intends to defend this case vigorously, as any other institution in our society has a right and an obligation to do," said Joanne Novarro, a spokeswoman for the diocese, the sixth largest in the United States. Rockville Centre joins dozens of dioceses, including Boston and Los Angeles, in defending civil cases stemming from the abuse scandal.

The two lawsuits were made public at news conferences held by the attorneys who filed the complaints, Melanie Little of Garden City and Michael Dowd of Manhattan. While the legal arguments contending abuse and neglect are similar in both lawsuits because the attorneys shared information, the Little filing goes further by asking for $1 billion in punitive damages.

"There is a mountain of evidence that what the diocese did was perpetuate a fraud on the Catholics of Long Island and the general public. They knew the schools and the churches were not safe, they were infested with pedophiles," said Little, who said the diocese needed to be punished for its moral culpability in hiding the abuse for so long.

While the permissible time period allowed to file lawsuits in every one of the 34 cases has already expired, state law makes an exception in cases in which fraud or negligence was concealed. Little and Dowd argue the culpability of the diocese was not exposed until the Suffolk grand jury report was made public.

Named defendants in the lawsuits because of their supervisory roles include the current leader, Bishop William Murphy, as well as his predecessors, Walter Kellenberg, John McGann and James McHugh, all now deceased.

Both attorneys say Murphy is responsible for the fraud even though he took over the diocese in September 2001, after most of the incidents had occurred.

In making a claim for punitive damages, Little said that as late as March 2002, Murphy told the public there was no priest serving who had credible allegations against him, only to remove from ministry the Rev. Angelo Ditta and the Rev. Eugene Vollmer days later after their alleged victims spoke to the press.

Also named as defendants are three monsignors who dealt with abuse claims and, though not named, figured prominently in the grand jury report.

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