The Diocese of Metuchen has agreed to pay an $800,000 settlement to 10 former parishioners from Middlesex and Hunterdon counties who claim they were sexually abused by five Catholic priests.
In the first announced settlement with a New Jersey diocese since the priest sex abuse scandal broke a year ago, church leaders resolved claims against Monsignor Michael Cashman of Woodbridge, once a spiritual adviser to Gov. James E. McGreevey, and the Rev. John M. Banko of Milford, who was convicted last month of sexually abusing an 11-year-old altar boy.
The diocese also settled claims against Michael Santillo, a former Perth Amboy priest who was convicted of molestation and who died three years ago in state prison; the Rev. John Butler, former pastor at St. John Vianney Church in Colonia, who was accused of misconduct with a minor 40 years ago on Long Island; and the Rev. Mark Dolak, former pastor of St. Matthias Church in Somerset.
None of the priests admitted wrongdoing as part of the settlement.
Bishop Paul Bootkoski signed off on the agreement after a 10-member diocesan panel heard tearful, detailed accounts from each victim last fall during closed-door hearings at the Diocese of Metuchen’s headquarters in Piscataway.
The victims’ attorneys, Patrick J. Bradshaw of New Brunswick and Edward Ross of Margate, who were barred from those hearings, credited Bootkoski for sparing the victims painful court proceedings and for personally apologizing to them.
“The bishop said to them, ‘We know you’re hurting, we want to help,'” said Ross. “He must be commended for doing the right thing.”
If the Metuchen Diocese had opted to fight the allegations in court as the Camden Diocese did last year with decades-old abuse claims all but two of the complaints could have been thrown out because they were raised long after the statute of limitations had expired, said Bradshaw, who represented former altar boys abused by Banko and Santillo.
“The reality of it is that if this diocese wanted to be rigid and exercise all legal rights, they might have been able to dismiss eight of the 10,” said Bradshaw.
Ronald C. Rak, general secretary for administration and legal services for the Diocese of Metuchen, said the bishop’s goal in settling the claims was to clear up some of the suspicion of church officials’ handling of abuse allegations.
“We want the process to have such integrity that people feel they can come forward to us, they can tell their story and they don’t need to feel threatened,” said Rak. “The bishop wanted (these victims) to know the church is still there for them, there is nothing for them to fear.”
One of Santillo’s victims, who testified at criminal hearings against the ex-priest, said it was “devastating” to repeat his story in excruciating detail to a panel of 10 strangers in a diocesan conference room.
“It was very hard to explain from beginning to end. It hurts me to talk about it in detail like they wanted,” said the former Perth Amboy resident, now 30 years old. “I was crying and everything. But after, the bishop came out and he apologized. He said they were sorry and he wants to help us out.”
Not everyone was pleased with the outcome. Raymond Gill, the Woodbridge attorney representing Cashman, the former leader of St. James Church in Woodbridge who was suspended from priestly duties last year, said he urged the diocese to defend the case and opposed the settlement.
A female parishioner has accused Cashman of taking advantage of her and molesting her two children, and another woman alleged improper contact with the priest.
Gill denied the allegations and insisted Cashman had a strictly pastoral relationship with the mother and her children.
“There wasn’t even a suit filed against him. They paid this woman money because the diocese didn’t want to go through the expense or embarrassment of a trial,” said Gill. “We went along with it kicking and screaming all the way.”
The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office is investigating the claims against Cashman regarding the children, which date back 20 years. When the probe is completed, the Diocesan Response Team will make a recommendation to Bootkoski to either return Cashman to the ministry or begin the process of removing him from the priesthood.
Cashman, 52, who has been staying with friends in Old Bridge, has cooperated with the Diocesan Response Team reviewing the allegations and went for psychiatric evaluations requested by the diocese, said Gill.
“We are confidently expecting Father Cashman to be reinstated, and we expect it to be imminent,” said Gill.
Banko, accused of molesting an altar boy at St. Edward’s in Milford, was convicted in December of aggravated sexual assault and is to be sentenced in February.
The Diocese of Metuchen, one of five Catholic dioceses in New Jersey, serves a half-million parishioners in Middlesex, Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren counties.
Awards for each victim will range from 2 percent to 25 percent of the total sum, based on the credibility of each allegation and the time that had passed since its occurrence, attorneys said. The amounts were fixed by retired Superior Court Judge C. Judson Hamlin, who mediated the case.
The settlement will be paid with income from the diocese’s investments and not from the bishop’s annual fund-raising appeal, said diocesan spokeswoman Joanne Ward.
One-third of the total will go to the attorneys, and the remaining $533,600 will be divided among the 10 victims.
Banko’s victim received the largest chunk, $134,000. The four victims who alleged Cashman abused them received a total of $145,000. Santillo’s three victims each received $71,000, and two other men who claimed abuse at the hands of Butler and Dolak each received about $18,000.
In Boston, 70 victims of sexual abuse and 16 of their parents settled claims last year against defrocked priest John J. Geoghan and the Archdiocese of Boston for $10 million. The payments to the parents were about $10,000 each, while some of the victims collected more than $300,000 each.
Victims’ groups said they were encouraged by the settlement of the Metuchen Diocese.
“It represents a good Christian approach by the Metuchen Diocese towards resolving the claims of abuse survivors,” said Paul Steidler, a spokesman for the New Jersey Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
SNAP has previously accused dioceses across the nation of engaging in hardball legal tactics to intimidate people who were abused by priests and prevent them from pursuing legal action.
“If resolving these kinds of cases with settlements is a sign of how Bishop Bootkoski will continue to resolve these matters, I will look more to him as a leader for his fellow bishops,” said Mark Serrano, a SNAP spokesman. “In the past year, what has been vastly absent has been a leader among the bishops.”