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Ex-Altar Boy Plans To Sue Dioceses

Jun 19, 2002 | The Miami Herald A former South Florida altar boy who won a clergy sex-abuse settlement plans to sue the Archdiocese of Miami today because he claims it broke their 1998 agreement requiring the church to investigate all molestation claims against priests, according to a copy of the lawsuit.

Kevin Sidaway says he wants a Florida judge to order the Archdiocese of Miami and the Diocese of Palm Beach to release the personnel records of active priests to see whether they face any child sex-abuse complaints.

Sidaway, 46, claims media reports of recently suspended and retired South Florida priests accused of molesting children prove church leaders failed to review all their personnel files after the settlement.

One priest, the Rev. Thomas Engbers, resigned in April from St. Martha's Church in Miami Shores citing health reasons -- but the archdiocese confirmed last week that it was because of a 22-year-old sex-abuse complaint that had been in the priest's file.

''If they cared about protecting children, they would have done this [investigation of priest files] four years ago,'' said Sidaway, a Lake Worth postal carrier and father of three. ``All they cared about is how much this was going to cost them. It wasn't about learning from their mistakes.''

Both dioceses said they have recently reviewed all their priests' personnel files for molestation complaints and cooperated with law enforcement officials.

In 1996, Sidaway sued both dioceses and Father Rocco D'Angelo, accusing the now-retired priest of raping and molesting him when he was an 11-year-old altar boy at St. Mark's Church in Boynton Beach in 1967. At the time of the alleged abuse, Palm Beach County was part of the Archdiocese of Miami.

Sidaway, represented by Cocoa Beach attorney Sheldon Stevens, said he reached a confidential settlement with both dioceses on May 18, 1998, that included both a damage payment and a list of required church safeguards to protect children.

His planned suit follows major reforms on clergy sexual misconduct adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last week in Dallas. It also comes after the Miami archdiocese confirmed 12 priests have been suspended or have retired since 1998 because of sex-abuse complaints against them -- with most of the incidents dating back years.

In a prepared statement for the Miami archdiocese, attorney James Gilbride said: ``There is no basis for any legitimate lawsuit.''

Gilbride, who represented the archdiocese in the original Sidaway case, said Archbishop John C. Favalora ordered the review of all 430 priests' personnel files and began turning over allegations of sexual abuse to the Miami-Dade state attorney's office during the past month.

Separately, the Diocese of Palm Beach County said it issued a report by an ecumenical panel that concluded the diocese paid $923,000 to settle cases of sexual abuse or harassment by seven priests during the past 18 years. The mostly lay panel pointed out that the seven cases involved adults. 'They went through all the priests' files,'' said Deacon Sam Barbaro, spokesman for the diocese. ``There was no abuse of a minor reported.''

The panel was appointed by Apostolic Administrator James Murtagh. He replaced former Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell, who resigned in March after a former Missouri seminarian accused him of sexual abuse.

The Sidaway case was first investigated in 1995 by Palm Beach prosecutors, who concluded there was ample evidence to charge D'Angelo with raping the former altar boy. But Florida law blocked prosecutors because the sexual battery statute in force at the time of the abuse applied to girls -- not boys.

''Had it been an altar girl instead of an altar boy, we would have been able to go forward with filing charges,'' said lawyer Scott Cupp, the ex-Palm Beach prosecutor who investigated the criminal case.

Frustrated by that setback, Sidaway chose to sue D'Angelo, the Miami archdiocese and Palm Beach diocese. That led to his 1998 settlement with them.

D'Angelo, transferred by the Miami archdiocese to the Diocese of St. Petersburg in 1968, was stripped of his priest duties in 1993 because of more molestation complaints filed in the Tampa area.

Now, Sidaway plans to sue the Miami archdiocese and Palm Beach diocese in state circuit court, alleging they have not obeyed the enforcement provisions in his settlement.

''By breaching the agreement, they left the door open for more Father D'Angelos to sexually abuse children,'' he said.

In his planned suit, Sidaway claims both dioceses failed to review all their priests' personnel files for child sex abuse or drug and alcohol use with minors, although he provided no evidence to support his allegation. He also said both dioceses were required to report such misconduct to a lay panel to investigate, and to advise victims' parents of their civil legal rights.

His attorney, Stevens, said he will ask a judge to allow an independent third party to review all priests' files since 1998 for misconduct complaints -- and to see whether church officials did anything about them.

''The sole purpose of our lawsuit is to force them to comply with the Sidaway agreement,'' the lawyer said, ``to make sure all [abusive] priests have been psychologically evaluated and investigated by a lay panel.''

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