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Brooklyn Diocese Sued

Oct 16, 2002 | Newsday

The leaders of the Brooklyn Diocese covered up widespread sexual abuse for three decades, according to a massive lawsuit filed yesterday by 43 men and women who say they were abused by Catholic clergy as children growing up in Queens and Brooklyn.

The suit names 12 priests and a religious brother as perpetrators of the abuse, which the plaintiffs say ranged from kissing and fondling to violent rape.

No place was too holy for the sexual predators, the suit claims, alleging the abuse took place on altars as well as in sacristies, bell towers, rectories, unused stairwells and church basements.

The victims met their abusers as students in Catholic schools or religious education programs, the lawsuit says.

The suit alleges that Bishop Thomas Daily, his predecessors Francis Mugavero and Bryan McEntegart and their deputies could have stopped some of the abuse but instead transferred pedophile priests, urged victims to remain quiet, and paid monetary settlements.

The Diocese of Brooklyn's spokesman, Frank DeRosa, said officials there have not seen the complaint and therefore could not comment on it.

DeRosa emphasized, however, that the diocese has cooperated with civil authorities in Brooklyn and Queens and adhered to a consistent policy that "directs representatives of the diocese to meet with victims, address their concerns, and offer them counseling."

Several of the priests named have denied wrongdoing.

The lawsuit was filed in State Supreme Court in Queens yesterday by Manhattan lawyer Michael Dowd and asks for $300 million for the plaintiffs.

By suppressing the truth, the bishops "allowed other children to be raped and sodomized over three decades," Dowd said.

"How in God's name is this going to be stopped unless the Catholic Church is cleaned, top to bottom?" said Dowd, a lifelong Catholic.

The suit also names as a defendant Msgr. Otto Garcia, the vicar general of the diocese, alleging that he participated in a concerted effort to fraudulently conceal the acts of predatory priests.

Plaintiffs include 39 men and four women who claim they were abused between the 1960s and 1990s. Some of the plaintiffs served as altar boys.

Most of them came from deeply religious Catholic families whose forebears, Dowd said, had literally laid the brick and mortar of churches in the diocese, which includes about 1.8 million parishioners.

Even though the alleged abuse occurred a decade or more ago, many victims never told their stories, even to their families, Dowd said.

Many suffer from alcohol and substance abuse problems, marital difficulties and sexual identity problems because of the abuse, the suit says.

One plaintiff, Robert Lambert of Las Vegas, first complained to the diocese nearly five years ago that he was abused by the Rev. Joseph Byrns as a child growing up in St. Anastasia Parish in Douglaston during the 1970s.

The diocese has been paying for Lambert's therapy, he said, but they did not take action against Byrns until July, when they removed him as pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Brooklyn's Parkville section. That occurred only after Queens District Attorney Richard Brown's office intervened, saying they found credibility to Lambert's claim. Byrns has denied the charges.

"I never really wanted it to come to this," said Lambert, 46. "We just got fed up with the lying, stonewalling. They initially said they investigated it. They never did."

Another plaintiff, Carol Poppito, 41, of Farmingville, said she hopes the case is settled.

"I just hope that Brooklyn is not going to be silly enough to fight when it is clear people have suffered enough," she said.

Poppito is one of the 26 plaintiffs who claim they were abused by the Rev. James Smith, who was forced to step down in March as pastor of St. Kevin's Church in Flushing.

By traditional measures, the allegations are too old to be the basis of lawsuits, but Dowd said he intends to argue that the statute of limitations normally three years after the victims turn 18 has not expired in these cases because the diocese breeched its fiduciary duty to protect and warn the plaintiffs. A similar rationale was accepted recently by a federal court in a church sex-abuse case in Connecticut, he said.

The defendants include some priests suspended this year following sex-abuse disclosures, others removed many years ago, as well as one who is deceased.

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