Camden Diocese settles abuse claims

Courier-Post, New Jersey/March 28, 2016

By Jim Walsh

Camden -- The Diocese of Camden has made financial settlements to resolve claims of clergy sex abuse involving parish priests in the 1950s and 1960s, a lawyer said Monday.

The payments took place after two men alleged they were sexually assaulted in separate incidents when they were children, said attorney Mitchell Garabedian of Boston. He gave no details but said each settlement was “in five figures.”

One man, now in his 70s, alleged that the Rev. Joseph Brennan sexually abused him from 1957 to 1959 at the former St. Maurice Parish in Brooklawn, Garabedian said.

The man was 12 to 14 years old at the time, Garabedian said.

The other, now about 60, said he was abused in 1966 by the Rev. Philip Mathews, who was assigned to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Berlin Borough.

Both  priests are deceased.

The men did not sue over the alleged abuse, Garabedian noted. Instead, the lawyer sent “demand letters” to the diocese, which settled after investigating the claims, he said.

“The survivors should be proud of themselves,” Garabedian said. “By coming forward, they’ve empowered themselves and made the world a safer place for children."

A Camden diocese spokesman said the policy of the diocese "is to settle every single credible claim of sexual abuse — no matter how old the claim might be, and regardless of whether the statute of limitations has expired."

The spokesman, Michael Walsh, said the diocese contests allegations in court "when the claim is questionable or the financial demand is unreasonable."

The diocese has settled two lawsuits after court fights in recent years.

It reached an agreement in June 2014 with a North Carolina woman, Lisa Syvertson Shanahan, who alleged she was abused as a child by Thomas Harkins, then a priest at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Hammonton. Similarly, the diocese in November 2013 settled a suit brought by Mark Bryson of Ohio, who contended he was victimized almost 50 years ago by the Rev. Joseph Shannon at a Camden parish, St. Anthony of Padua.

Terms of those agreements were not disclosed.

Garabedian and Walsh offered opposing views on the role of the Catholic Church in enabling sex offenders.

“One has to wonder where the supervisors of these priests were and why they did not protect these children,” Garabedian said. "I think the Catholic Church is an entity that's allowed innocent children to be sexually abused."

Walsh said the Camden diocese has been “active in implementing policies and procedures to ensure the safest possible environment for those entrusted to its care.”

"The Diocese of Camden takes any claim of sexual abuse seriously, and reports every allegation of abuse to law enforcement authorities,” he said, noting a toll-free number is provided for people alleging wrongdoing by clergy members.

According to Garabedian, Brennan abused the boy in a bathroom at St. Maurice Church and in the priest’s bedroom of a nearby rectory. That case was settled in January, he said.

Mathews was accused of sexually assaulting a boy in an Atlantic City hotel in 1966. That claim was settled in February 2015.

Garabedian said his clients reached out to him with “completely unrelated” cases.

“It’s not unusual for survivors to contact me,” said the attorney, whose advocacy on behalf of clergy abuse victims is depicted in the Oscar-winning film, "Spotlight."

Road to Recovery, a North Jersey-based group that aids victims of clergy sex assaults, helped each of the men alleging abuse, said Robert Hoatson, the nonprofit’s founder.

“This is the way to do it,” he said of the out-of-court settlements.

“Who’s going to make these stories up?” he asked.

“You’re not getting a windfall of money,” added Hoatson. “You’re coming forward to get healing, and the acknowledgement by the diocese is an important part of that process.”

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