Settlement reached in sex abuse case involving Brick Twp. pastor

The Star-Ledger/January 14, 2009

Twenty-two men who claimed they were molested by the same Lutheran pastor in Brick Township when they were boys in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s reached a financial settlement today with the estate of the pastor, Robert Slegel, and with other parties in their lawsuit, according to lawyers for the plaintiffs.

The amount of the settlement was not made public, as the agreement forbids the parties from discussing the terms, said Robert Fuggi, a Toms River attorney representing the plaintiffs.

Fuggi had been seeking $5 million per plaintiff in the suit, which was filed in 2005 against Slegel, St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Brick, and the New Jersey Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The settlement was reached after a mediation session, Fuggi said in a statement.

"While the settlement will do much to help my clients," he said, "it will not in and of itself alleviate the lifelong struggle that victims of child sexual abuse, and especially clerical sexual abuse, have in struggling to find healing and closure."

The Rev. Stanley Ellison, current pastor of St. Thomas Lutheran Church, said he was pleased the suit is now resolved.

"We're very grateful that it's settled -- very, very grateful to everyone who worked so hard to come to agreement on it," he said. "And we're grateful to God. We hope that this brings closure to everybody involved -- the plaintiffs, the church and the school."

Slegel had resigned in 1993 as pastor of St. Thomas Lutheran after police charged him with soliciting an adult male prostitute in Lakewood. He died in 2006 in North Carolina, at age 77, just over a year after the lawsuit was filed.

In court papers, the plaintiffs, identified by initials only, contended that the abuse occurred between 1967 and 1985 and occurred for between one and nine years for each plaintiff. The plaintiffs contended they were between five and 15 years old when they were abused.

The suit contends that Slegel would fondle the boys and himself, usually in the church or in his office, and then would verbally pressure them not to tell anyone what happened. The plaintiffs included parishioners at the church, students at the school associated with the church, and children from the area.

With 22 plaintiffs, the case ranks among the largest involving clergy sex abuse in New Jersey. Other large cases have involved Catholic priests in Morris and Camden counties.

Attorneys for the defendants argued last year that the case should be dismissed on the grounds that civil statutes of limitations had expired. But Superior Court Judge Thomas E. O'Brien ruled the case could proceed.

The school connected to the church downsized last year, closing its first through eighth grades. It still has a pre-school and kindergarten.

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