In Rare Move, N.Y. Jury May Decide Priest Sex Abuse Case

April 17, 2007

The United States’ sixth-largest Roman Catholic diocese is headed to trial this week in a $150 million lawsuit accusing church officials of recklessness for employing a youth minister who raped and sodomized teenagers.

But despite its familiar scenario of youths abused by religious leaders, this case is rare: It could be one of the few decided by a jury, rather than a quiet, out-of-court settlement.

The U.S. Conference of Bishops estimates abuse-related costs from lawsuits have exceeded $1.5 billion, the majority out-of-court settlements.

Many cases are settled out of court to prevent details from going public, said Steve Rubino, a New Jersey lawyer who has handled hundreds of church sex abuse cases.

“There is a tendency not to want to run that risk,” Rubino said.

On Long Island, a grand jury found nearly two dozen cases of abuse going back decades in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, the nation’s sixth largest, with 1.3 million Catholics in 134 parishes.

The allegations included altar boys being groped and sodomized during church trips, overnights at priests’ homes, and many other instances when children were left alone with their abusers.

Priests also allegedly showed pornography to youngsters and served them alcohol. The diocese’s response was to transfer priests between parishes and to bury details of the abuse, the grand jury said.

The case with opening statements set for this week involves Matthew Maiello, who pleaded guilty to rape and sodomy in 2003 and served more than two years in prison. But the real focus is St. Raphael’s Church in East Meadow, its pastor, the Rev. Thomas Haggerty, and the diocese.

“This is about who let the lions loose,” said attorney Michael Dowd, who represents two plaintiffs — a man and a woman, who were 15 when the abuse began — who claimed church officials failed to act when confronted with reports that they were repeatedly molested by Maiello.

Dowd said he intends to show videos that Maiello took of his clients having sex with each other and with him. His clients have not been identified by The Associated Press because they are victims of sexual assault.

The encounters took place in Maiello’s office, the children’s choir room, the principal’s office at the parish elementary school and in the backstage of the auditorium where the youth group gave musical performances, according to the lawsuit.

Concerns were raised at a December 1999 meeting with Haggerty, but the matter was dropped and no action taken, the lawsuit contends.

Diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan did not return a telephone call seeking comment. Brian Davey, an attorney representing the pastor, the parish and the diocese, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“We don’t try our cases in the newspaper,” he said. “We try in them in the courtroom.”

Although named as a defendant, Maiello’s attorney, Lawrence Carra, said his client would not contest the allegations and would abide by any verdict.

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