A Diocese Fights Through Decades Of Abuse ClaimsJul 21, 2002 | The Philadelphia Inquirer
A month has passed since the nation's Catholic bishops enacted a "zero tolerance" policy for sexual abuse of children by priests. The scandal that has wracked the church may be ebbing - but not in South Jersey.
Here, a legal battle is churning into its eighth year. On one side is a stubborn group of 18 plaintiffs - among them a Harvard-educated doctor, a computer programmer, a balding bank employee, a paving contractor - who say that over four decades, 16 priests abused them, acting not as men of God but, in the words of plaintiff Stephen Gandy, as "monsters."
They claim that five priests once ran a "sex ring" of altar boys, and that church leaders protected known abusers in what amounted to one of the worst priest scandals in the nation.
On the other side is the Camden Diocese, which counts 430,000 Catholics in its 127 parishes, from the Delaware River to the Jersey Shore. It says the allegations are untrue or unprovable, that six priests named in the suit are dead, and that the statute of limitations has expired for most of the claims.
Of the surviving defendants, the diocese says, all but one has retired or been removed from duty.
One church lawyer calls it "miraculous" that so many plaintiffs sued all at once in 1994 - after headlines told of millions of dollars in past abuse settlements by the church.
Diocese spokesman Andrew J. Walton says the suit's claims are from "the distant past" and involve very few of the 900 priests to serve the diocese since its founding in 1937.
The abuse allegations are serious, Walton says, but "to suggest some kind of orchestrated plan or policy of tolerance in the diocese . . . is outrageous and untrue."
When he was an altar boy at St. Pius X in Cherry Hill, James J. Smith says, two priests and a seminarian molested him, starting at age 15. He says he was 18 when his worst abuser pressed a gun to his neck and squeezed the trigger.
The chamber was empty - but Smith says the priest warned that if he ever told anyone of the abuse, "I'll blow your head off with this gun."
Smith, now 54, cried during an interview at his home in Voorhees last month. He said he was so scared that night in 1966 that he wet himself, slipped from the priest's grasp, and ran from the rectory till his bare feet bled.
The diocese says Smith is a proven liar, because he admitted having lied on a job application about being a college graduate and a Vietnam veteran.
The Rev. Francis J. Flemming, the priest Smith says had the gun, died in 1986. Father Flemming denied the abuse when church officials questioned him two decades earlier, Walton said Friday.
As for the others who Smith says abused him decades ago: In court documents, the Rev. Dennis Rigney, who is now deceased, denied the abuse. Msgr. James P. McIntyre, who was a seminarian when Smith says he molested him, has vehemently denied it under oath - and the diocese has stood behind him.
Msgr. McIntyre, now a priest at Holy Family parish in Sewell, Gloucester County, has told parishioners the allegations are false. Walton says the diocese has determined that Smith's claims are not "credible."
Among the suit's other claims, all of them disputed by the diocese:
That in 1961 a priest who is now deceased raped a 6-year-old girl in a Berlin rectory. Now in her 40s, the accuser is among the plaintiffs.
That a priest abused Stephen Gandy when, at age 14, he was visiting a Collingswood church to ask about studying for the priesthood. His mother promptly reported the abuse, he says, but was told she'd be "condemned to hell for doubting a prince of the church."
That two priests lured teenager Gary Mulford to bed naked in a Magnolia rectory.
That Mulford was one of several altar boys passed around by the alleged "sex ring" in the 1970s and '80s.
That in each of three families, a priest abused two brothers.
That a priest molested five girls - all sisters and cousins - holding each on his lap, fondling them, and masturbating as he heard their confessions at churches in Brigantine and Cape May.
Even as the diocese moves to implement the U.S. bishops' new policy, the suit, which has smoldered in Atlantic County Superior Court for years, is costing the church and its insurance carriers massive fees for lawyers, investigators, experts and publicists.
"Sexual abuse of minors is a grave wrong and can never be tolerated," Camden Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio wrote in the Atlantic City Press in May. In explaining why the church is fighting so hard, he said the plaintiffs wanted "tens of millions" in damages and had initially accused the church of racketeering and sought to dissolve the diocese.
A court struck down the racketeering claim, but lead plaintiffs' lawyer Stephen C. Rubino, whose Margate office has become a lightning rod for e-mails and calls alleging past abuse by priests, vows to appeal that ruling.
And the plaintiffs' reasons for fighting on, even after some claims have been dismissed?
"My brother and I are doing this out of a higher reason," says Mark Depman, an emergency-room physician in Guilford, Conn. "It's about helping victims, about helping children."
Smith, a bank employee who has children of his own and who readily admits that he once lied to get a job, puts it this way: "Jim Smith isn't a skinny 14-year-old kid anymore. Now I'm 6-5 and I'm a little bit tougher and a little bit stronger, and I'm prepared to take them on."
He says he still has nightmares in which he can feel the gun's cold muzzle against his neck. He remembers how, even into his 20s, he took countless showers, "still trying to get clean, still trying to get the dirt off me."
He and other plaintiffs want new laws passed, and on this front, the suit prompted a judge to wonder aloud about such a change - even as he dismissed one of the claims because the statute of limitations had expired.
Murder has no statute of limitations; "should the same be true for child sexual abuse?" Judge John G. Himmelberger Jr. asked in May. "That's a matter for the legislature to ponder."
Bills that would make this change are pending in Trenton.
The suit says that Stephen Gandy's mother told the diocese of her son's abuse by the Rev. Patrick Weaver back in 1966. The priest would go on to have quite a record.
In 1985, the suit says, Father Weaver molested another teenager at St. Joan of Arc rectory in Camden, forcing him to urinate as the priest held the boy's penis. That year, Father Weaver quit the diocese and was convicted and imprisoned for molesting his own nephew and another boy. He has not answered requests for an interview.
"It was a notorious band of priests who just blanketed the Camden Diocese in the '60s and '70s and just really hurt a lot of people," said Gandy, 49, a safety manager for the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority. "The monsters I lived with weren't hiding under my bed. They were right in front of me giving me communion."
By the time Father Weaver was jailed, other Camden Diocese priests in other parishes were being separately accused. In all, four went to prison.
In 1989, the Rev. John J. McElroy admitted molesting a 12-year-old boy in a shower stall at St. Francis de Sales' rectory in Barrington, and was sentenced to five years' jail. A separate suit, settled for $700,000, said he had threatened the child into silence with guns and knives.
Between 1990 and 1994, the Camden Diocese paid $3.2 million in all to settle abuse claims filed by 19 men and women against nine priests, according to sources familiar with church bank records. Many of the settlements were conditioned on confidentiality - but several plaintiffs subsequently broke the agreements and spoke publicly.
The pending suit mentions some of those cases in an attempt to show a pattern. Some of the past settlements involved priests who are defendants in the suit - and are alleged to have been part of the so-called sex ring.
Gary Mulford says two of those priests abused him in a rectory bed at St. Gregory's parish in Magnolia. Mulford says the Revs. John P. Kelly and John P. Bernard lured him to bed naked - and joked that they could not tell the Rev. William Titmas because Mulford was "his boy." Mulford says Father Titmas had molested him repeatedly over several years.
A lawyer for the estate of Father Kelly, who died in 1992, has denied the allegations. Father Bernard and Father Titmas have denied the claims in court documents.
In an interview, Mulford, 42, a Navy veteran who repairs casino slot machines, described being assaulted in church rectories and in beach houses, where he and his friends stayed with the priests.
"I've held this in for far too long," Mulford said, choking back tears as he sat in the living room of his home in Tuckerton, N.J.
It was not until years later, he said, that he learned some of his friends were also assaulted.
He recalled a summer at Beach Haven West, where Father Kelly and Father Titmas rented a house. "We would do the normal things, go out to the beach and pick up girls - then go back to the house and get molested, each one of us in a different room."
One of his friends, John Moken, later sued, alleging that the late Father Kelly and the Rev. Joseph Shannon had abused Moken and his brother in the same bed. The diocese settled for $25,000. Through his lawyer, Father Shannon has denied the allegations.
Diocese spokesman Walton, who declined to discuss past settlements except to say no wrongdoing was admitted, said the diocese has not been sued for sexual abuse since the latest case was filed in 1994. In that time, he said, the diocese has had only one complaint of such abuse.
In recent months, Judge Himmelberger has been weighing whether to let various claims in the suit proceed even though most were filed long after the statute of limitations expired. This spring, grotesque stories unfolded in the judge's courtroom.
In April, as their mother sobbed in the gallery, brothers Philip and Robert Young testified of having been assaulted by the man for whom Philip was named, Msgr. Philip Rigney. They said he molested them hundreds of times between 1978 and 1982, when they told their mother, Joan Dougherty. She went to Bishop George H. Guilfoyle.
Dougherty testified that the late bishop told her not to go to police, and promised her he would remove Msgr. Rigney from duty and send him for counseling.
The bishop's notes - now a court exhibit - say he later confronted the priest, who "did not deny" the abuse and agreed to counseling.
Msgr. Rigney - brother of the late Rev. Dennis Rigney, another defendant in the suit - has denied the abuse claims in court proceedings, and said he was not sent for counseling. He was transferred from St. Francis de Sales in Barrington to Our Lady Queen of Peace in Pitman before retiring in 1987.
Four years later, Msgr. Rigney went to work part-time at a church in South Florida - where he arrived with a letter of recommendation from Bishop James T. McHugh, Bishop Guilfoyle's successor. Bishop Guilfoyle died in 1991; Bishop McHugh in 2000.
A few years before the alleged assaults on the Youngs, the suit contends, Msgr. Rigney raped and abused another teenage boy, a runaway he had invited to live at the rectory at St. Joseph's Pro-Cathedral in Camden. The priest, now 85 and living in Singer Island, Fla., has denied this, too.
Himmelberger dismissed the Youngs' claim, saying they waited too long to sue. Their lawyers say they will appeal.
Himmelberger also rejected the claims of brothers Mark and John Depman because of the statute of limitations - but not before the Depmans, too, testified of years of abuse by priests who had befriended the family.
John Depman said he was molested by the late Father Kelly. He also testified that Father Shannon raped him at the family's summer home at the Shore.
John Depman, 46, who runs a highway paving contracting company, testified that the Rev. Norman Connelly took him and other boys to a Philadelphia bathhouse, where they and the priest played Ping-Pong and basketball in the nude and sat naked in the steam room.
The lawyer for Father Kelly's estate has denied the Depmans' claims, as have Father Connelly and Father Shannon in court documents.
The suit says the priests preyed on the reverence and devotion of such families as the Depmans and Youngs: Parents entrusted children to priests' care, letting them spend nights at rectories, or invited priests on family vacations.
John Depman testified that he was "enchanted" and flattered by the priests' attention. He even spoke of the "cachet" of their friendship.
Depman's brother Mark testified that he was repeatedly assaulted by Father Kelly between ages 13 and 16. He said his first kiss was with the priest.
The court hearings are scheduled to resume next Monday.
The next issue in court involves claims by five women in one family that, when they were children, Msgr. Augustine Seidenberg fondled each of them during confessions. Msgr. Seidenberg, who was suspended from his duties years ago and retired in 1996, has denied those claims.
Some of the plaintiffs say the Rev. William C. O'Connell abused them in 1993 and 1994 when he was working as a volunteer at Our Lady Star of the Sea in Cape May.
Years earlier, in 1986, Father O'Connell went to prison for molesting boys in Rhode Island. When he was arrested, the suit says, police found a "guest book used to record the sexual conquests of minors," along with whips, chains, and photos of naked children.
The suit contends that the Camden Diocese should have known of Father O'Connell's criminal history and barred him from working with children. Diocese lawyers, through their spokesmen, say Father O'Connell is deceased.
Diocese spokesman Walton said Friday, "It appears that the diocese did not know of that [past] conviction." Even if the church did know of the priest's past crimes, one of the defense lawyers said in court papers, "It is well-recognized that a bystander has no duty to provide affirmative aid to a person in peril."
Some of the allegations in the suit are now under review by the Camden County Prosecutor's Office. The diocese said in April that it had provided the names of all 14 priests involved in "substantiated" abuse allegations, along with those of 12 priests named in the suit.
Among the documents the plaintiffs have filed is an affidavit by the late Msgr. Salvatore J. Adamo, for years a newspaper columnist. Msgr. Adamo, who died last year, was a frequent critic of church higher-ups and said the diocese had a "code of silence" about pedophile priests.
Though Msgr. Adamo went far afield - he said Bishop Guilfoyle was known as "queen of the fairies" - the outcry this year from abuse victims and subsequent apologies from some church officials make part of his affidavit seem prescient.
"The silence of decades must come to an end," Msgr. Adamo wrote in 1998. "An apology must be offered to the victims of sexual abuse."