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A Past Of Hurt, A Mission To Help

Jonathan Norton, 17, Said He Was Abused By A Priest As A Child. The Camden County Resident Is Coming Forward For Others Like Him.

Oct 6, 2002 | Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer Amid the unfolding sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, Jonathan Norton watched the church portray the assaults on children as largely events of the past, terrible things that happened decades ago to victims now in their 40s or older.

So the Camden County teenager decided he had to tell his story.

At 17, Norton said he knows the trauma of being sexually abused by a priest.

From age 8 to age 10, Norton said, he was molested by a priest when he was an altar boy at St. Peter's parish in Merchantville. He said the priest who had baptized some of his siblings - fondled and groped him, eventually forcing him to perform oral sex.

When Norton sued the Diocese of Camden in 1999, it settled out of court. The priest had been removed from duty.

A police officer's son in a devout Catholic family, Norton said he spent years in quiet agony - even after learning that one of his brothers had been abused by the same priest. Norton told of bloodying his arms and legs with a box-cutter and attempting suicide more than once, with diet pills and a homemade noose.

Now he is on a mission: "If there's kids out there that were abused which I 100-percent believe that there are then I feel God is sort of giving me the strength to come forward first."

He is poised to meet tomorrow night with the bishop of Camden.

In agreeing to Norton's request for a meeting, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio is following a mandate laid down in June, when the nation's bishops met in Dallas and adopted a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse. They also voted to require each bishop or his designee to meet with victims in the hope of bringing "healing and reconciliation."

Bishop DiMarzio had met with victims before Dallas, diocesan spokesman Andrew Walton said. This time, instead of hearing an adult describe long-ago abuse, the bishop will sit with a high school senior, a wrestler who wears a buzz cut and a crucifix, and writes music for a heavy-metal band.

Until now, Norton's history has been known to the diocese but not to the public. In a confidential settlement, the diocese paid more than $600,000 to end his lawsuit, according to his family. His lawyer, Benjamin Folkman, said only that the suit "had been resolved." Diocesan officials declined to comment on the suit.

Camden County prosecutors investigated in the 1990s but brought no charges. In April, the diocese turned over records of abuse allegations, including Norton's, made against 26 priests over many years.

Norton's was different from the others' in one important way: The events he described were recent enough to fall within the statute of limitations for prosecution.

The priest Norton accuses is Father James F. Hopkins, 59. A Northeast Philadelphia native, he was ordained in 1968 and served in eight South Jersey parishes between 1973 and 1995, when he was removed from duty. He now lives in Florida and works at a Walgreens in Palm City, about 100 miles north of Miami.

Reached by telephone and asked about Norton's allegations, Father Hopkins said only: "I really don't have any comment."

Jonathan Norton was afraid.

He said the abuse stopped in 1995, when Father Hopkins was suspended. Norton's brother Bret had come forward, and the diocese had moved quickly, removing the priest from duty and contacting police, though no charges were filed.

"The report that we got gave us every reason to believe that [Bret] had been abused," said Walton, the diocese spokesman.

But Norton said he feared reprisal if he spoke out the way his brother had.

Norton said Father Hopkins had warned him: "If you ever tell anyone, God will hate you. You'll burn in hell. Your family will burn in hell... .' I believed it."

When Norton was 14, a teacher picked up on a dark theme in an essay he had written that depicted his brother as his hero, saving him from death as he was poised to jump off a bridge. School officials, concerned about the suicidal theme of his work, called his parents and sent him to a counselor.

It was in counseling, a few months later, that he revealed the abuse.

"I always wanted to tell, but I didn't know how to tell. I was only in eighth grade," said Norton, who now lives in Atco and is a senior at Hammonton High School. "I'm just now after all these years, after all the counseling, starting to talk about it. Before, I couldn't even say 'I was abused by a priest' without breaking down in tears."

Part of what made it so difficult, he said, was a sense of betrayal. As Norton talked about those feelings in a series of recent interviews, his words echoed what other abuse victims have said.

"I loved him. He was my idol. When I was younger, he was the closest thing to me next to my brothers and sisters," said Norton, one of 12 children who grew up saying the rosary daily and regularly attending Mass. His parents were so active in the church that they won a bishop's medal for meritorious service.

Father Hopkins "told me he loved me constantly," Norton said. "To me, he was God... . I was raised in the Catholic church. You look at a priest, and they're the closest thing to God. You tell them your sins. You think... 'God must let this happen, so it must be OK.' "

When the priest began to shower him with attention, the boy was flattered. Then the affection turned sexual.

He said the abuse occurred in the family's home and in the priest's auto, a black car with tinted windows.

He became confused about sex.

"You're being introduced to it in the wrong way," Norton said. "You always question yourself: 'Am I gay? Am I straight?'

"My father was a policeman. I always looked at him as strong as an ox. At the time, I thought I could never, ever be a man because of what happened."

Victims of childhood abuse often take decades to come to terms with what happened. David Clohessy, executive director of the national group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Norton's ability to talk about his experience at an early age was remarkable.

"This kid is a hero," Clohessy said. "He is going to inspire so many people."

Cathy Norton first heard something bad about Father Hopkins in 1988.

She and her husband, Twain, a retired Cinnaminson police officer who now works as a bakery deliveryman, volunteered at their church in Merchantville all the time.

Cathy Norton was coordinator of the altar servers when the mother of an altar boy told her that Father Hopkins had unzipped his pants in front of her son and some other boys.

Perhaps it was inadvertent, Cathy Norton thought. Maybe the priest was tucking his shirt into his pants before Mass. Nevertheless, she said, she reported the complaint to a parish priest.

Soon thereafter, she said, Father Hopkins went away for a few months and church officials did not explain his absence.

She said she asked church officials whether she and her children could write to Father Hopkins, and was told they could send get-well cards in care of the diocese. When he returned, he was transferred to St. Aloysius parish in nearby Oaklyn.

Walton, the diocesan spokesman, confirmed last week that the priest took sick leave for four months in 1988 and then was transferred to St. Aloysius. He said he could not comment on the nature of the medical leave. Walton said he checked records and could not confirm that the diocese knew of the 1988 complaint.

Seven years later, Bret Norton told his parents that Father Hopkins had molested him.

They told church officials, who contacted police and prosecutors. A police file said the family did not want to bring charges.

Cathy Norton said that was not quite true, but the family did not press the issue.

"At the time, our whole attitude was: 'This is our church, we don't need to smear them,' " she said. "[The priest] was removed. We just wanted to make sure that he was out."

When her younger son Jonathan came forward four years later, Cathy Norton said, she promptly called the diocese and the prosecutors.

Walton said there was little the church could do: The priest had been suspended and had moved away. He said the diocese cooperated with prosecutors.

This time, Cathy Norton said, investigators tapped the family's telephone, recording a call as she spoke to the priest, and tried but failed to get him to admit the abuses.

Camden County Prosecutor Vincent P. Sarubbi declined to comment last week except to say: "It's been the consistent policy of this office to investigate any cases involving allegations of sexual abuse."

Officials of the diocese, which stretches from the Delaware River to the Jersey Shore, announced in April that they had turned over to prosecutors 26 past allegations of sexual abuse by its priests.

Of those, the diocese said, 14 involved allegations that it had deemed credible - including those of Bret and Jonathan Norton.

Law enforcement officials said Jonathan Norton's case was still within the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution.

Sarubbi declined to say whether his office was investigating Father Hopkins.

Norton and his mother say they would like to see criminal charges filed. "People molest children, they go to jail," Norton said. "There's no reason it should be different for priests."

He has told a handful of friends about the abuse and was surprised at how supportive they were.

In recent years, Norton has stopped attending Mass, but he said his faith had not waned. "God is my strength and I still believe in Him as I did before.

"I feel everybody has a purpose. I believe my purpose is to make a difference. God gave me the power and strength to stand up against these abuses and say: 'We are not going to let this keep happening."

Some 17-year-olds dream of becoming actors or athletes. Norton's dream is this:

"I want to raise tons of money, and I want to build a big house for all these kids who were abused."

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