From a sidewalk in Kearny, Henry Coffey, 80, points to the sections of the old Sacred Heart Orphanage where he says nuns molested and beat him as a boy in the early 1940s: the laundry room; the nuns' quarters; the classrooms.
His sex-abuse claims will be hard to prove in court -- the nuns are deceased, for one thing - but Coffey and another former orphanage resident, Frank Fioretti, 81, recently cleared a legal hurdle when a Superior Court judge in Essex County denied a motion to dismiss their 2005 suit.
That motion had been brought by the Pallatine Sisters, the religious order now based in Harriman, N.Y., that ran the boys orphanage until it closed in the 1950s.
"I remember everything," Coffey said in an interview during which he recounted allegations that a nun and he had repeated sexual encounters in her room during his seventh-grade year, and intercourse at a bungalow in Harriman during the summer. "I always seemed to have a good memory."
Allegations that Catholic clergy molested minors in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s have become common in the last seven years, in the aftermath of the clergy sex scandal. Allegations dating to the 1940s are rarer, said Jeff Anderson, an attorney in St. Paul, Minn., who has represented thousands in clergy sex-abuse cases.
"You just don't hear about it," he said, "because those people have learned to suffer in silence and are afraid of rebuke, reprisal or disbelief."
Matters of time
They present obvious challenges to the court system, as the defense pointed out while trying to dismiss the case: Witnesses die. Evidence is lost. Memories fade. And then there are the statutes of limitations.
Stressing the passage of time since the alleged abuse, the Pallatines' attorneys noted in court papers that when the plaintiffs lived at the orphanage, from 1937 to 1943, "Franklin D. Roosevelt was the president of the United States, Winston Churchill was the British prime minister, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and James Cagney won the 1942 Academy Award for best actor for his role in the classic movie "Yankee Doodle Dandy.'"
The Pallatines' lawyer, in pressing for dismissal, argued that statutes of limitations were in effect, that the plaintiffs' delays in suing make the case virtually impossible to defend, and that Coffey tried to unfairly influence the testimony of another former orphanage resident. The lawyer, Anthony Dougherty, did not return calls seeking comment.