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Catholic Church, Boy Scouts hit with sex abuse suits under new NJ law extending victims' rights

Jeremy Roebuck, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

NEWARK, N.J. -- Dozens of new allegations of sexual abuse against priests and scoutmasters have surfaced since Sunday, as New Jersey opened a temporary, two-year window granting victims a second chance to pursue court claims that had been previously barred by time limits.

New lawsuits filed over the past two days include allegations against six priests in the Camden Diocese as well as previously undisclosed claims involving now defrocked Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Newark.

In another new filing, a now 59-year-old man accused the Archdiocese of Philadelphia of failing to stop his abuser, Bucks County priest Francis Trauger. When his parents turned to another cleric to counsel their son, his lawsuit alleges, that priest took him on a trip to the Jersey Shore and molested him, too.

In all, 48 lawsuits -- some with allegations dating as far back as the 1950s -- have been filed against the Boy Scouts of America and Roman Catholic dioceses in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York since the state's "statute-of-limitations lookback window" went into effect at midnight Sunday. That number is expected to grow into the hundreds by the time the state closes the temporary window in December 2021, plaintiff's attorneys said.

"Today is a momentous day because we can finally move forward in our pursuit of justice," said Patty Fortney-Julius, a Harrisburg, Pa., woman who filed suit Monday against the Archdiocese of Newark and Diocese of Harrisburg for abuse she and her four sisters endured for years. "Today is not just about telling our story. Today is about finally having the chance to get answers."

The wave of suits was made possible by New Jersey's new law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in May and could put institutions like the church on the hook for millions of dollars in court judgments and settlements in county courthouses from Newark to the Jersey Shore.

Under the previous law, people had two years to file from the time they realized they had been harmed by abuse. The new law extends the statute of limitations, allowing people to sue until they turn 55. It also opened the two-year window for all sex abuse claims no matter when they occurred.

More than a dozen states have considered similar bills, spurred on by the #MeToo movement and the 2018 grand jury report outlining decades of abuse and cover-ups in Pennsylvania's Catholic dioceses. Efforts to pass a window law in Pennsylvania have been met with fierce opposition from Catholic leaders and the Boy Scouts, who have argued that lifting the statute-of-limitations would subject them to a flood of lawsuits with allegations too old to defend against.

Still, the volume of new litigation in the first days of the New Jersey window was not quite the frenzy critics predicted.

When New York opened a similar window in August, limited to one-year, more than 400 new cases were filed on the first day and that number has since reached more than 1,000.

As of 5 p.m. EST Monday, each of New Jersey's seven Roman Catholic dioceses had been named as a defendant in at least one lawsuit. That included four new lawsuits filed against the Diocese of Camden, three naming the Trenton diocese and seven against the Archdiocese of Newark.

Newark church officials, like those in all of the other dioceses sued this week, declined to address the specific allegations lodged in the new lawsuits. But in an email that echoed similar statements from Catholic leaders across New Jersey, a spokesperson said the archdiocese "will continue to cooperate and work with victims, their legal representatives and law enforcement authorities in an ongoing effort to resolve allegations made and bring closure to victims."

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Allentown were also sued by plaintiffs alleging that Pennsylvania priests had abused them on trips across the Delaware River, including one woman who said she first met Allentown priest Joseph A. Rock as a 13-year-old in Atlantic City only to be tormented by him for the next 11 years.

The now 58- year-old woman, identified in court filings as "Jane Doe," maintained that Rock, who has since been defrocked, forced her into oral and anal sex from the day he first offered to babysit her in 1974 and on trips to the Jersey Shore.

When she finally tried to cut off contact after she had moved on to college, she said in court papers, Rock blackmailed her with nude photos and videos he had taken of her since she was a girl.

Rock, who now lives in Bethlehem, Pa., has repeatedly declined to comment on repeated allegations lodged against him by multiple accusers between 1985 and 2001. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

 

Also silent were Trauger and John Schmear, both of whom were accused in a lawsuit of abusing an altar boy from East Norriton, Montgomery County, starting when he was just 11.

Their alleged victim, now 50, said in a lawsuit Monday that his parents suggested in 1981 that he talk to Schmear -- a friend of the family and teacher at Bishop Kenrick High School and Norristown -- after he first alleged Trauger had abused him.

But Schmear, the suit states, took invited him into his bedroom at the rectory St. Titus Parish and instead steered the conversation toward the boy's masturbatory habits and began to rub his genitals. Similar abuse allegedly continued throughout the man's high school years and during a 1982 trip to the Mystic Island section of Little Egg Harbor Township, Ocean County.

"Throughout his life since the abuse, (the accuser) has struggled with anger and rage problems ... inability to maintain healthy relationships and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder," his lawsuit said.

Like Trauger and Schmear, most of the priests named in the new filings Sunday and Monday had previously been publicly identified as "credibly accused" by their dioceses and removed from ministry -- in some cases decades ago.

Schmear was removed from ministry in 2005 and continues to live a "life of prayer and penance" under archdiocesan monitoring. Trauger, who was accused by more than a dozen minors, was criminally charged earlier this year in Bucks County in a separate abuse case and has denied the charges.

In Camden, new lawsuits were filed naming previously identified alleged abusers including the Rev. Patrick Weaver, formerly of the St. Mary Parish in Cherry Hill; the Rev. Norman T. Connelly, formerly of St. John the Evangelist in Paulsboro; the Rev. Jay Shannon, formerly of St. John's Parish in Collingswood; and the Revs. John Kelly and John Bernard, both of St. Gregory Parish in Magnolia.

The record of McCarrick, the now defrocked 89-year-old cardinal, has also been scrutinized by plaintiff's lawyers, his fellow U.S. bishops and the Vatican since he was first accused of sexually assaulting minors and adult seminarians in the '90s.

Still, new accuser John Bellocchio -- who sued Monday over abuse he says he endured at 14 when McCarrick visited his parish in Hackensack in the 1990s -- said he felt it was important to file suit to learn what exactly Vatican officials knew about McCarrick's conduct and when.

Now 37, Bellocchio said: "He never would have been able to do the things he did and rise up the ranks the way he did without their complicity or consent, implied or otherwise."

(Staff Writer William Bender contributed to this article.)

(c)2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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