Over a year, more than 230 sex abuse suits have been filed in NJ against the Catholic Church

NorthJersey.com/December 1, 2020

By Abbott Koloff and Deena Yellin

The lawsuits filed over the past 12 months in New Jersey alleging sex abuse by Catholic priests have been numerous — there are more than 230 of them — and varied.

One man said that when he was a student at St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale and told a vice principal that he’d been abused by a religious brother, the administrator struck the student over the head with a 500-page book, warned him never to speak of it again and imposed a five-day suspension.

A woman said she and other members of her Girl Scout troop were repeatedly abused in the basement of a Hackensack church years ago by a priest who was subsequently moved from parish to parish, eventually arrested in Pennsylvania and charged with sexually abusing a young girl in the Harrisburg area. Four of the Pennsylvania girl’s sisters later said they also were abused.

A girl in southern New Jersey confided years ago to her brother that she had been raped by a priest, who had told her God directed him to have sex with her. The brother responded that he, too, had been abused — by the same priest.

The Record and NorthJersey.com has examined more than 230 sex abuse lawsuits filed in New Jersey against the state’s five Roman Catholic dioceses since Dec. 1, 2019, when the state suspended the civil statute of limitations for such cases. The filings name more than 150 clerics, including dozens not on the church’sown list of 188 credibly accused priests released last year, and trace allegations from the 1940s through the present.

The lawsuits represent more than 240 people who allege they were abused. The bulk of the allegations are from the 1970s and 1980s. About two dozen involve abuse of children who were 5 or 6 years old. While most of the accusers are men, at least 20 women are among the plaintiffs. Almost half of the priests named in the suits are deceased.

Hundreds of additional allegations have been filed with the New Jersey Independent Victim Compensation Program, which was established by the state’s five Catholic dioceses last year to compensate victims who agree not to pursue lawsuits.

In October, as complaints continued to pile up, the Diocese of Camden filed for bankruptcy, putting on hold more than 50 lawsuits and 70 claims with the compensation program that have been moved to federal Bankruptcy Court. Several attorneys have said they anticipate other dioceses will follow Camden’s lead.

The Newark Archdiocese is named in 94 of the lawsuits, with the Camden Diocese named in 54, Trenton in 52, Metuchen in 25 and Paterson in 19. Until recently, many clergy abuse victims were barred from filing such lawsuits. New Jersey loosened the restrictions on civil complaints involving sex abuse last year, expanding the statute of limitations and suspending it completely during a two-year window.

Former Giants chaplain

Church officials said last year that they would add names to their lists of credibly accused priests — but so far that has not happened. The Record and NorthJersey.com has learned of at least six cases settled by the victim compensation program involving North Jersey clerics not yet on the list.

One of those priests is William Dowd, who is listed as retired by the Newark Archdiocese. Dowd had been removed from ministry years ago while he was working at a Ho-Ho-Kus parish when two men from Immaculate Conception parish in Montclair alleged that he abused them years earlier. A member of the church response team that heard the case has told The Record and NorthJersey.com she anticipated Dowd would be laicized because the allegations appeared credible, with the men independently describing similar details about the church rectory where the priest resided.

Dowd was acquitted in a church trial and has said he was restored to ministry just in time to get a Super Bowl ring as the New York Giants’ chaplain in 2008. He worked for the Giants until late last year.

Greg Gianforcaro, an attorney who filed a lawsuit naming Dowd as an abuser, confirmed that his client, one of the two men from Montclair, received a settlement from the victim compensation program in October, so the suit will be withdrawn.

Last week, a Montclair woman filed a lawsuit saying she was raped by Dowd at Immaculate Conception in 1971 while two nuns held her down. She alleges that she was abused by one of the nuns starting in 1969 when she was 8 years old. That nun and another sister escorted her to see Dowd in 1971, when the priest allegedly abused her. The abuse continued until she left the parish school in 1975, she alleges.

The two nuns are deceased. Dowd's attorney, Joseph Hayden, said last week that the priest denies the allegations made in the recent lawsuit. The attorney declined to comment on the settlement in the other case or to say whether Dowd, who lives in Brick, is allowed to work as a priest.

The Newark Archdiocese spokeswoman, Maria Margiotta, has declined to say whether Dowd may wear the clerical collar and perform priestly functions. She did not respond to requests for information about the priest over the past week, including the latest accusations against him and the two nuns.

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"I think what you're seeing is this repeated pattern by the church of avoidance and hiding the truth," said John Baldante, the attorney who filed last week's lawsuit. "They conceal information, and retreat to their corners and hide the truth from the public."

Pat Hanlon, a spokesman for the Giants, said in an email last week that he believed that the Giants last used Dowd’s services “sometime mid-fall of 2019.”

The compensation program also paid a settlement to a man who alleged that Leonard Spanburgh, a Newark Archdiocese priest from Cedar Grove who was not on the church's credibly accused list, abused him during overnight trips to Lake Hopatcong in the 1970s.

Mitchell Garabedian, the accuser’s attorney, said the settlement was in the “high five figures” but declined to specify the amount. He provided a redacted letter from the compensation program written to his client saying it had "completed the review of your claim and has determined that you are eligible for compensation.”

Spanburgh, a Boy Scouts chaplain who died in 1983, had never been publicly accused, according to Garabedian. The Newark Archdiocese did not respond to questions about his case.

Three priests named in seven suits

Three deceased New Jersey clerics — Augustine Giella, Joseph Shannon and Frank Iazetta — each are named in seven lawsuits filed under the new state law, the most of any of the state’s diocesan priests.

Giella, of the Newark Archdiocese, is accused in five lawsuits of abusing girls in Hackensack and Glen Rock in the 1960s and 1970s. All those suits were recently settled by the victim compensation program, said Gianforcaro, who filed the claims.

Two other pending lawsuits accuse Giella of abusing three Pennsylvania girls in the 1980s. He died in 1993.

Shannon, of the Camden Diocese, had been accused years ago of being part of a group of priests who had sex with children — and allegedly abused two boys in the same family. Now he is accused of abusing their sister, a 13-year-old girl he allegedly raped while telling her it was God’s will.

Iazetta, of the Trenton Diocese, is accused of luring a teenager who wanted to be a priest by engaging him in discussions of religion and psychology. He then allegedly abused the teen while telling him he was “doing God’s work” and that the abuse would be a “religious and psychological growth experience.”

Iazetta put his hands on the boy’s head and spoke in Latin, according to court documents, telling him “he was absolved of any doubts that he had in partaking in the sexual activity.”

From a cardinal to parish priests

The lawsuits filed over the past year name a wide range of clerics, from former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most powerful prelates in the church, to ordinary parish priests, many of whom were shuffled repeatedly to different assignments. More than 70 people accused of abuse are not on the diocese’s credibly accused lists. At least 11 of the accused are not clerics — they include teachers, sports coaches, nuns and school administrators. Some are religious order monks not included on the lists.

Two Catholic school teachers — Bernard Garris of Paramus Catholic High School and Timothy Brennan of the Delbarton School — each have been named in 10 lawsuits.

Garris, a layperson and longtime hockey coach at Paramus Catholic, was fired in the late 1980s and died many years ago after moving to Minnesota. Brennan, who died last year at a treatment center for clerics, has never been placed on a list of accused clerics because he was a religious order brother, and then priest, with the Order of St. Benedict in New Jersey, which runs the Delbarton School.

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The victim compensation program says it has received 692 claims, including the 70 from Camden that are on hold. The program has sent out 566 determinations, denying one out of five claims. Of the offers sent to claimants, a little less than 20% were rejected, and a similar number are waiting for a response.

The fund so far has paid 271 people an average of $115,000 per claim.

“It’s really embarrassingly low,” said Baldante, who has filedmore than 70 lawsuits under the new law and represents almost a hundred more people who have filed with the victim compensation program. He said some of the offers have been “hurtfully low and disrespectful to victims.”

Attorney Adam Horowitz, who represents many clergy abuse victims, said his clients have been offered settlement payouts as low as $20,000 — and as high as $500,000 when their allegations are related to a known abuser. He said the average accepted offer has been $240,000.

Garabedian said one of his clients received a settlement in the “mid-six figures” for a claim made against Father Robert Patterson of the Newark Archdiocese — a priest who had not been publicly accused until now. Patterson allegedly abused a 10-year-old boy in 1969 at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Newark. The priest was assigned to Corpus Christi parish in Hasbrouck Heights in the mid-1960s.

There are only a few lawsuits alleging abuse after 2000. Mostsuits involve alleged abuse in the 1970s and 1980s, with about 10% from the 1990s. Victims advocates say it often takes decades for people to feel comfortable enough to talk about being abused. The church has said it changed the way it handles sex abuse cases, and since 2002 it requires police to be notified and credibly accused priests to be removed from ministry.

Abbott Koloff is an investigative reporter and Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to their watchdog work that safeguards our communities and democracy, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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