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New Accuser of Priest Comes Forward

Apr 9, 2002 | Philadelphia Inquirer The saga of Msgr. Philip Rigney, the priest accused of sexually abusing two generations of a New Jersey family, took new twists yesterday as it was revealed in court that someone else had come forward to claim that the priest had abused him in the 1970s.

The new allegation was described by Stephen C. Rubino, a lawyer for plaintiffs in a class-action suit against the diocese. He said a man had called him from out of state on Sunday night and said that, when the caller was a teenager, Msgr. Rigney had sexually assaulted him at a rectory and at a beach house in the early 1970s.

Rubino offered to give details to a judge yesterday, but the judge said it was irrelevant to the pending suit.

Meanwhile, officials in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden were at a loss to explain how they had come to recommend Msgr. Rigney to a diocese in Florida in 1991, years after he had been accused of sexual abuse in Camden and had been ordered to seek professional help.

Msgr. Rigney is accused in a long-running lawsuit of sexually assaulting two New Jersey brothers, their father, uncle, and members of another family, and has denied those claims in a sworn deposition. He is among several priests named in a complex class-action suit contending that the Camden Diocese tolerated sexual abuse of children and conspired to cover it up. Lawyers for the diocese have strenuously denied that.

The brothers, Philip and Robert Young, say the priest, a longtime family friend, groped and sodomized them over a four-year period while they were teens. They said the abuse took place at church rectories in Camden and Barrington and on family vacations in Florida, Canada, the Jersey Shore, and the Poconos. When they finally told their parents about the alleged abuse in 1984, their mother reported it to Bishop George H. Guilfoyle.

In court yesterday, their mother, Joan Dougherty, took the stand, and recalled meeting with the bishop in February of that year. She said she and her son Philip met the bishop in the wood-paneled library of his retreat house in Blackwood. At the start of the meeting, Dougherty, who described herself as a devout Catholic, said she greeted the bishop by kissing his ring and calling him "Your Excellency."

She said she told the bishop that Msgr. Rigney had abused her two sons and, years earlier, her husband and her brother. She also said that when she was 16 or 17 and dating the man who would become her husband, she had fallen asleep on a car trip with the priest, and awakened to find his hand on her thigh.

She said Bishop Guilfoyle assured her that he would remove Msgr. Rigney from his priestly duties and see to it that he got counseling. She said the bishop also told her not to go to authorities.

"He said: 'I do not want you to go to the authorities. You are not to report this,' " she testified. " 'It would be very destructive to the church, and it would be harmful to your family. . . . The news media would have a field day with this. This would cause much destruction to the church. The Catholic Church has their own internal legal system which takes care of improprieties.' "

Rubino, the lawyer for the Youngs and other plaintiffs, asked Dougherty whether she considered the bishop's admonition an order.

"Yes," she said. "It was definite that he was ordering us not to go to the authorities because he said the Catholic Church has its own internal legal system and they take care of priests who get into trouble. It's the separation of church and state."

Msgr. Rigney, 84, denied the abuse in a deposition last year. He acknowledged being confronted about the allegations by Bishop Guilfoyle, and said he had offered to resign but was transferred to another parish until his retirement in 1987. He said he never got counseling or professional help.

Later, Bishop Guilfoyle wrote in a memo about his meeting with Dougherty that Msgr. Rigney "did not deny" the abuse and had agreed to professional and spiritual help.

After his retirement from the diocese, Msgr. Rigney asked Bishop Guilfoyle's successor for a recommendation so he could work in a parish in Jupiter, Fla.

On the strength of that letter, the Diocese of Palm Beach hired the priest to celebrate Sunday Mass and hear confessions at St. Peter Catholic Church in Jupiter. Sam Barbaro, a spokesman for the diocese, said officials there had not known of the abuse allegations.

Andy Walton, a spokesman for the Camden Diocese, confirmed yesterday that Bishop James T. McHugh, Bishop Guilfoyle's successor, had given Msgr. Rigney "permission to assist" at the Florida church, where he served from 1991 until poor health forced him to stop last year. Both bishops have since died.

"It's not clear that Bishop McHugh was aware of the allegations . . . because those allegations were made in 1984," Walton said. He added that, after the Youngs sued the priest in 1995, Bishop McHugh "withdrew Msgr. Rigney's priestly faculties."

Yesterday, after hearing conflicting testimony about the priest's health, Judge John G. Himmelberger Jr. ordered Msgr. Rigney to testify via video-conferencing.

The priest's lawyer told the judge that Msgr. Rigney was ailing and was too ill to travel. Lawyers for the plaintiffs countered with a videotape taken in Florida in which the priest, a white-haired man, could be seen walking slowly with the aid of a cane. The judge said yesterday, however, that he saw no reason to force the priest to travel when he could testify by video conference.

The Diocese of Trenton, meanwhile, said yesterday that it would be "providing concrete information to prosecutors" over the next week, and one prosecutor said he expected the names of alleged victims of sexual abuse and the priests accused of the misconduct.

"It's generally my understanding that the information we've requested is going to be turned over," said Raymond Milavsky, first assistant Burlington County prosecutor.

Lawyers for the Philadelphia Archdiocese are poised to meet sometime this week with prosecutors in the office of Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham.

"She asked for the meeting, and we're honoring the request," said Catherine Rossi, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, who would not say when the meeting might take place, or even the official reason for the meeting.

Rossi said she would not "speculate on what may or may not take place at or after" the meeting.

Last week, Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi said he had asked Trenton Diocese officials to turn over to him all information about 13 priests he said they have identified as abusers over the past 50 years.

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