Bishop hopeful settlement will speed the process of healing The Diocese of Camden has reached an agreement to settle the sexual abuse claims of 23 plaintiffs in a suit filed nine years ago in the New Jersey Superior Court in Atlantic City.
The lawsuit contained allegations by 19 of the plaintiffs of sexual abuse which occurred between 1961 and 1985, along with allegations by two plaintiffs that they had been abused when they were minors by a former priest from Rhode Island. The Diocese has agreed to pay $880,000 to the plaintiffs, which includes $300,000 to their attorneys to reimburse them for out-of-pocket costs associated with the lawsuit.
“I am hopeful that this reconciliation will speed the process of healing for those who have been harmed in any way,” said Most Reverend Nicholas DiMarzio, Bishop of Camden. “I am also confident that the comprehensive policies adopted by this Diocese to protect and safeguard the children who are entrusted to our care, along with our genuine concern for the victims of abuse, will be a source of renewal for the Church and for the people of the Diocese.”
The settlement follows a series of consecutive dismissals of the claims of six of the plaintiffs by the Superior Court which held that they had not substantiated any reason for not filing their claims within the time permitted by the statute of limitations. The seventh dismissal occurred after the plaintiff, who admitted that he had fabricated portions of his oral deposition while under oath, refused to answer questions during the court proceeding at the risk of self-incrimination.
Most of the claims in the original complaint, which was filed in 1994, had already been dismissed by the court, including the plaintiffs’ conspiracy count and counts which sought the removal of the diocesan bishop and dissolution of the diocese. The principles on which the diocese has defended itself have been consistently and repeatedly upheld by the court over the last nine years. “These having been affirmed, this settlement now clears the way for the fullest possible outreach to those who claim to have been abused,” said Bishop DiMarzio.
For years, the diocese’s victims’ assistance program has included payment for professional counseling, whether or not the person alleging abuse has sued the Diocese. In addition Bishop DiMarzio, who has emphasized that personal outreach to victims is essential to the healing process, also strives to meet directly with victims to offer pastoral care. Such meetings were precluded from occurring with plaintiffs in this case so as not to compromise on-going legal proceedings.
With the case now settled, Bishop DiMarzio extends an invitation to any person in the suit who claims to have been harmed to meet with him directly. With the appointment last October of its Victims Assistance Coordinator, Barbara Ann Gondek, L.C.S.W., the Diocese has worked to develop a comprehensive program of outreach so that victims have access to a full range of psychological, pastoral and spiritual services.
This program includes the recent formation of a confidential, weekly support group for victims of sexual abuse, facilitated by an independent, licensed clinical social worker. In addition to outreach to victims, the Diocese has established measures to ensure that allegations of abuse are responded to promptly and in accord with state reporting requirements. A toll-free number (1-800-964-6588) was established last year for those who wish to report allegations of past or current sexual abuse by any diocesan or parish employee.
This is overseen by Laurence E. Rosoff, an independent attorney and former municipal court judge. Mr. Rosoff is responsible for making appropriate referrals of abuse reports to county prosecutors and/or the N.J. Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). Last December the Diocese joined with other New Jersey dioceses to sign a first-in-the-nation “Memorandum of Understanding” with county law enforcement agencies that establishes reporting procedures for all child abuse cases which go above and beyond the reporting of sexual abuse which is required by New Jersey law.
The Memorandum formalizes the long-standing practice of the Diocese to report allegations to local law enforcement and county prosecutors and to cooperate in their investigations (since 1971 state law has required that allegations involving current minors be reported to DYFS and law enforcement). The Diocese also last year formed a nine-person Review Board, which includes five lay people and is headed by former Judge Philip A. Gruccio, to assist the Diocese in assessing the credibility of allegations of sexual abuse by clergy and other church personnel.
The board will also provide advice to the bishop regarding fitness for ministry for those who have been accused and will regularly review diocesan policies and procedures related to sexual abuse.