Woman files suit against priest and church

North Jersey.com/December 10, 2009

Fair Lawn - A 73-year-old Fair Lawn woman has filed a lawsuit against St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church and the Archdiocese of Newark citing damages as a result of an alleged sexual assault that occurred at St. Anne’s on Nov. 15, 2007.

The woman asserts in her lawsuit that she has suffered spiritual, physical and emotional damages as well as embarrassment and humiliation as a result of coming forward and claiming that 39-year-old Rev. Edson Fernando Costa, the assistant pastor at St. Anne’s at the time, sexually assaulted her. Rev. John C. Doyle, the Pastor of St. Anne’s, and Archbishop John J. Myers were named in the complaint. Costa, who is also named in the complaint, forced the woman, who was 72 at the time of the incident, to touch him inappropriately in a secluded hallway in the upper level of the church according to the suit.

Four days after the assault, the woman informed Doyle of the misconduct, according to the lawsuit. Doyle did not notify the Archdiocese or any law enforcement personnel of the incident, according to the complaint. The plaintiff also claims that Doyle did not offer her any type of counseling, according to the suit. On Nov. 22, 2007, Costa, Doyle and the plaintiff met to discuss the incident.

"Rev. Edson F. Costa admitted the sexual assault of the plaintiff and requested forgiveness. At no time did Rev. Joseph. C. Doyle contact the Archdiocese of Newark, nor any law enforcement agencies, or any other person or entity, to provide therapeutic care for the plaintiff," according to the suit.

In the middle of December 2007, the plaintiff contacted the Archdiocese to notify them of the misconduct. The Archdiocese immediately contacted the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office and informed them of the allegations, according to the suit.

On June 6, 2008, Costa was arrested for criminal sexual contact. On Sept. 17, 2008, Costa waived his right to have a trial and admitted to the crime in court before Judge Lois Lipton. After admitting to the crime, Costa, who was ordained in May 2005, asked to be entered into the Pretrial Intervention Program (PTI). If he completes the program successfully, he will not have a criminal record.

PTI is a program that "provides defendants, generally first-time offenders, with opportunities for alternatives to the traditional criminal justice process of ordinary prosecution. PTI seeks to render early rehabilitative services, when such services can reasonably be expected to deter future criminal behavior," according to the New Jersey Judiciary Web site.

In addition to entering the PTI program, Costa was placed on administrative leave from the church and is still not allowed to celebrate mass, present himself as a priest or dress in a Roman collar, according to Jim Goodness, the Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Newark.

The plaintiff is suing all of the named defendants for compensatory, consequential and punitive damages, as well as attorney’s fees and the costs of suit. She claims that all of the defendants had an inherent duty to protect and respect her spiritual, physical and mental wellbeing, according to the suit. The suit also claims that the Archdiocese, church and bishop failed to properly supervise and instruct Costa on proper behavior, therefore, they are also responsible for his misdeeds. The suit also states that as a result of the incident, the plaintiff has been ostracized from the church community, one in which she was once very involved with and was even named "Parishioner of the Year," according to the suit.

The suit also alleges that Doyle should have known "of the sexual depravity of the defendant, Father Edson F. Costa and should have taken precautions with respect to his duties to parishioners, in particularly, this plaintiff, from the sexual depravity of Father Edson F. Costa," according to the suit.

Goodness could not comment on the litigation, but said that allegations of misconduct are taken very seriously. When a supervisor is told of alleged misconduct they are required to report it to Goodness and/or local authorities immediately. He also stated that procedure was followed in the aforementioned case.

"When the matter was reported to the diocese we immediately notified the prosecutor’s office and cooperated with the prosecutor. He was placed on administrative leave during that period, while the investigation with the prosecutor’s office was underway. He remains on leave and is not permitted to be in the ministry," Goodness said. "The church has to make a decision about what if any ministry he would be eligible for (in the future). That’s down the road."

The church and the various prosecutor’s offices have excellent relationships and work hand-in-hand to ensure that all allegations are investigated thoroughly, according to Goodness. If the alleged incident is part of an ongoing legal investigation, the church defers to the prosecutor’s office so that it can conduct its investigation. If the incident involves a child then the Archdiocesan Review Board investigates the allegation. If it involves an adult, then the Archbishop and Vicar-General are charged with dealing with the issue, according to Goodness.

In addition to being suspended from practicing as a priest, any clergy member who is found guilty of misconduct may be subject to a canonical trial, according to Goodness. The Vicar-General and Archbishop of the diocese also decide what further action may be taken if any, according to Goodness.

"If we are dealing with a case that is a criminal manner, the prosecutor of course takes precedent. If it is an older matter (something beyond the legal statute of limitations) then church law comes into play. It’s decided if further steps under Canon law need to be taken," Goodness said.

Anyone who is going to be working for the church, be it a lay person or a clergy member, is subject to extensive screening and background checks, as mandated by the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that was instituted in 2002, according to Goodness. Additionally, anyone who will be working with children must undergo a three-hour course in sexual abuse training.

"The course involves video and discussion and it’s facilitated by trained facilitators to make people aware of boundaries and acceptable code of conduct and how to recognize patterns that could be warning signs of someone who may not be appropriate to work with children," Goodness said. "I think the training class is not a general for children’s protection only class. Although it specifically does address minors, the rules are the same. There are appropriate ways of dealing with individuals when you are in a ministerial situation, and that’s what we stress. There are boundaries and those are the standards to which people need to work."

In addition to requiring training and an investigation of any alleged misconduct, the diocese also offers counseling to anyone who may have been a victim of abuse, according to Goodness. Some people choose to participate in the counseling and others do not, Goodness said.

Doyle declined comment on the litigation as he "has not seen the complaint. I have not received the complaint; therefore I’m not able to comment. This for me, is merely a report in the newspaper."

Gerald Tyne, the plaintiff’s attorney, did not return repeated requests for comment. The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office did not return calls for comment.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.