Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sex abuse lawsuits mount against ex-priest, Newark diocese

Walters.jpgTwo more sex abuse lawsuits were filed this month accusing a New Jersey priest of sexually abusing children when they attended a Catholic school in the 1980s.

That brings the total lawsuits lodged against the Archdiocese of Newark and the Rev. Mitch Walters to three.

And more may be coming, according to Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston-area attorney who was portrayed by Stanley Tucci in the 2015 film "Spotlight."

Garabedian said he is representing six clients who say they were abused by Walters.

The latest two lawsuits were filed separately in Essex County Superior Court on Oct. 5 by Danielle Polemeni and David Ohlmuller. Both attended St. Cassian's Parish and the church's associated school in Upper Montclair when they were children while Walters was a priest and deacon.

Jim Goodness, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, declined to comment on the lawsuits. Goodness said earlier this year that Walters denies the allegations against him. 

Walters was removed from the ministry in January after the allegations arose.

Polemeni, a 47-year-old teacher who now lives in Columbus, Ohio, said in an interview with NJ Advance Media that Walters groped her on multiple occasions when she was 13 and 14 years old.

"I thought it was my fault," Polemeni said. "I was extremely embarrassed and ashamed."

Polemeni's family was active in the church and friendly with Walters, she said. Polemeni said that Walters once groped her buttocks and put his face in her breasts while he was in her family's home.

During an eighth-grade class trip to the Poconos, Polemeni said Walters carried her around a swimming pool while fondling her breasts and buttocks for several minutes. Though her parents did not witness either incident, other people were around, she said.


The Rev. Michael "Mitch" Walters, who was removed from the ministry by the Archdiocese of Newark, has also been accused of abusing parishioners in Montclair.

"I also thought that that was just how men behaved," Polemeni said. "That, sometimes they were creepy, and gross, and you just had to wait for them to go away."

Ohlmuller, a former alter boy at the St. Cassian's, alleges that Walters fondled him "many, many times" in the church's confessional in 1982 when he was 12. Ohlmuller, who also spoke with NJ Advance Media, also said the priest kissed him.

Ohlmuller said he distanced himself from the church and struggled with anxiety and substance abuse as a result of the alleged sexual assaults.

He said he began having flashbacks to the alleged abuse last year when his son entered the sixth grade, the grade Ohlmuller was in when he alleges he was assaulted.

"I don't want anyone else to go through this," Ohlmuller said, so he contacted Bob Hoatson of Road to Recovery, a group that supports victims of sexual abuse. Hoatson, who put the victims in touch with Garabedian, commended the two for going public with their stories.

"Talk about courage," Hoatson said. "The fact that they put their names on this...shows they are not just looking out for themselves, but also for the healing of so many others."

Katherine Carter, a spokeswoman for the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, said the Archdiocese contacted authorities about the allegations but said no criminal charges have been filed against Walters.

Hoatson said his group often pursues civil suits because criminal statutes of limitation have expired in many clergy sex abuse cases.

Garabedian said he plans to continue to pursue cases that shed light on past abuses.

"It's about empowering themselves, and making the world a safer place for children everywhere," Garabedian said.

Though they are not seeking a specific amount in damages, the two plaintiffs said just filing the suits has brought them some sense of closure.

Polemeni, who works in a Catholic school in Ohio, said talking about the alleged abuse has been painful, but healing.

"My relationship with the Catholic Church is definitely a paradox," she said. "It is where I have received the most hurt and the most shame, but also where I have received healing and grace."

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