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 $ 5 M settles priest sex suits

Paterson Diocese accord involves many abused in Mendham

Abbott Koloff, Daily Record, February 10, 2005

A group of 26 men who say they were abused by Catholic clergymen, many by a Mendham priest in one of the most notorious cases of clergy abuse in the state, have agreed to an estimated $5 million settlement to end two lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson. Details were not made public but those involved with the case said on Wednesday that individual plaintiffs will receive settlements that appear to range from $100,000 to $200,000, the amounts determined by a court-appointed mediator and based on the damage suffered by individual plaintiffs.

The agreement was reached in late January, those close to the case said, and a notice of settlement was filed in the Morris County Courthouse on Feb. 1. The settlement is not yet official because not every victim has signed off on it. Plaintiffs contacted Wednesday said they received copies of the agreement this week and had just signed them and returned them to their attorney. Some said they were not celebrating the agreement as a victory because the diocese refused one of their most important requests -- to make public the personnel files of priests.

Most of the plaintiffs said they were abused decades ago by James Hanley, a former pastor at St. Joseph's in Mendham who was removed from the priesthood in 2002 -- 17 years after church officials learned of allegations against him. Hanley, now living in Paterson, was not a defendant in the lawsuit because he agreed to help the plaintiffs by providing them with a statement.

Hanley said in the statement that former Paterson Bishop Frank Rodimer, who retired last year, allowed him to continue working in the mid-1980s after the priest acknowledged allegations made against him. The bishop told Hanley, according to the statement, that he was not the only diocese priest who had abused children. But while Rodimer has acknowledged that he allowed Hanley to work for a year at a Passaic County parish after learning about charges of abuse, and then sent him to work for a time in an Albany, N.Y., hospital, no one has claimed the priest abused children after the bishop was first told about the allegations.

Diocese officials would not comment on the settlement, adding that any information would have to come from an attorney for most of the plaintiffs. "We're not confirming a settlement at this point," said Marianna Thompson, a spokeswoman for the diocese. Greg Gianforcaro, who represented 25 of the victims, did not acknowledge that a settlement had been reached when contacted Wednesday evening.

"It is too early to talk about," he said. "I do believe that Bishop (Arthur) Serratelli is committed to victims and their healing."

Other attorneys involved in the case on both sides did not return phone calls Wednesday. Some victims said they expected Gianforcaro to make a formal announcement of the settlement next week -- after all of their signatures had been returned to him.

The settlement brings to an end two separate lawsuits filed against the diocese and Rodimer -- one by Gianforcaro on behalf of 25 men and another by a man who is not Catholic but said he may have been Hanley's first victim. That man has been homeless at times, his attorney has said, once living in a concrete construction pipe in Morristown.

Plaintiffs willing to talk Wednesday, and others close to the case, said the diocese agreed to pay for four years of counseling for each plaintiff in addition to the monetary settlement. They also said Serratelli, who took over from Rodimer last summer, agreed to meet each plaintiff in a one-on-one meeting after the settlement is finalized. But victims also said the settlement was far from a complete victory.

"It closes a chapter but I don't feel any great satisfaction," said Robert Deacon, 57, of Randolph, who claimed that he was abused by a priest decades ago at St. Mary's parish in Wharton. "I didn't get into this for monetary reasons. I went in to have him (the allegedly abusive priest) removed."

Deacon's case was unusual because, while the settlement calls for him to receive money from the diocese, the priest he accused of abusing him as a child continues to work at a Passaic County parish. Deacon came forward last year with allegations that he had been abused by Monsignor Julian Verettoni but a diocese review board determined he did not present enough evidence for local church officials to take action against the priest.

The diocese announced earlier this year that Veretonni would continue working at Sacred Heart parish in Clifton. Deacon said on Wednesday that a canon lawyer helped him file an appeal of that decision with church officials in Rome. Roberto Acevedo, of Dover, who said he was abused years ago by a deacon in Paterson, also said he is receiving money as part of the settlement. But he said the money doesn't wipe away the abuse he suffered.

"It doesn't erase anything," Acevedo said.

Mark Serrano, a former Mendham resident who has become a nationally-known victim's advocate, also said the final agreement was lacking. Serrano settled his own lawsuit against the Paterson Diocese in 1987 for $350,000 after charging that Hanley abused him as a child. He was not part of the recent lawsuits but his decision to go public with his story in 2002 opened the door for other victims to come forward and led to a support group for victims at St. Joseph's.

Serrano praised victims for pursuing the suit and said they asked diocese officials to open their records as part of the negotiations to settle the lawsuit. He said victims were relieved the suit had come to a conclusion but wanted more.

"There's a dichotomy there," Serrano said. "There's a sense of relief for the victims. But why weren't more disclosures made as there has been in some other parts of the country?"

In at least two cases in other parts of the country, local church officials agreed to open up personnel records after victims refused to settle lawsuits for money alone. Serrano said Paterson church officials refused such a request and victims wanted their lawsuit to come to some sort of conclusion. He said the blame for the refusal to open up church records should fall on Serratelli, the bishop.

"There is no reason the Diocese of Paterson shouldn't release personnel files because it could lead to the healing of victims," Serrano said. "The bishops promised transparency when they signed a charter in Dallas (in 2002) to protect children. This settlement doesn't reach that standard.

"But that takes nothing away from the victims. The plaintiffs are true heroes. They have overcome a lifetime of shame and guilt. Bishop Serratelli is the man in charge, making the ultimate decisions. Ultimately, this was a business decision on the part of this bishop to clear his desk of the clutter left by Bishop Rodimer. This is no victory. This is a conclusion."

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