Wednesday, May 30, 2007

$11.45m Judgment In Sex Abuse Suit Against Roman Catholic Church

In one of the largest judgments in a child sexual abuse suit against the Roman Catholic Church, a jury awarded a total of $11.45 million in damages Friday to two people who were repeatedly raped by a youth minister as teenagers starting in the late 1990s.

The jury deliberated for seven days before finding that the Diocese of Rockville Centre, the sixth-largest in the United States; a church in East Meadow; and its pastor were negligent by hiring and retaining the man who abused the plaintiffs over a period of three years.

After the verdict, one plaintiff tearfully embraced her mother, then held an impromptu news conference in a hallway at the courthouse. Saying that thousands of children have been victimized, she added, "I am their voice."

The purpose of her suit was to "see the truth come out" and to "prevent the abuse of children everywhere," she said. "Children cannot protect themselves from sexual predators."

While awaiting his turn to speak, the other plaintiff collapsed in the arms of a lawyer, and court aides had to revive him with oxygen.

"He was just overcome with emotion," said one of his lawyers, Paul Mones.

Later, in a telephone interview, the male plaintiff said, "It was extremely difficult for me to relive the experience through the litigation process." But he urged other victims to come forward because "these kids are going to need therapy and support - you have no idea."

Both the female plaintiff, now 23, and the male plaintiff, now 22, testified during the three-week trial that they suffered anxiety, depression, flashbacks, nightmares and difficulties in their careers and in social and romantic relationships as a result of being raped and sodomized by the youth minister, Matthew Maiello.

The jurors, four men and two women, left the courthouse without comment.

A lawyer for the church defendants, Kevin McNiff of the firm Mulholland, Minion & Roe, said they were reviewing the verdict and their options. A diocese spokesman, Sean Dolan, said it was "too early to say" if it would appeal.

"We humbly accept the decision of the jury," Dolan added. "We need to try to understand better in terms of the actual dollar amount what that all means. We want to focus on the lessons we've learned over the last few years in creating the safest church environment we can. We're really saddened by the terrible actions of Matthew Maiello, and I hope the award given by the jury helps the victims."

The jury's awards approached the $6 million given to each of two victims in a California case in 1998, according to Jeffrey Anderson, a lawyer who specializes in sexual abuse cases but was not involved in the New York case.

But the New York case was notable for more than the size of the judgments.

Public attention in church cases has often focused on accused priests rather than on employees other than clergy members, like Maiello, now 33, who pleaded guilty in 2003 to raping and sodomizing four minors, including the two who sued. He served two years in prison and now lives in Connecticut.

This lawsuit was also the first abuse case against the Roman Catholic Church in New York State - and one of the few in the United States - to go to a jury verdict. Most such suits against the church are dismissed, often because of the statute of limitations, or are quietly settled out of court.

"You very rarely get a chance to hear from the victims - how these guys operate, how the kids get trapped and how the parents get fooled - almost never," said Mones, the plaintiff's lawyer. "And almost never do you get to hear a pedophile testify in detail; that's very rare." Maiello was subpoenaed to testify at the civil trial.

Convictions in most criminal cases on child sexual abuse, including Maiello's, result from plea bargains.

The jury attributed 70 percent of the blame to Maiello, who did not contest the suit and has few assets.

But the jury also ruled that the church defendants - the Diocese of Rockville Centre; St. Raphael's Roman Catholic Church in East Meadow; and its pastor, the Reverend Thomas Haggerty - acted "with reckless disregard for the safety of others in the negligent hiring and retention" of Maiello.

That finding of recklessness means that the church defendants are responsible to pay the full award if Maiello does not have the money for his share, said the victims' lead lawyer, Michael Dowd.


The jury awarded $2.5 million to each victim for injuries and suffering to date, as well as $250,000 annually to the woman for the next 12 years, and $115,000 annually to the man for the next 30 years. Her total would be $5.5 million, and his would be $5.95 million.

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