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Queens clergymen accused in civil sex suit

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More than 35 people who accused Roman Catholic priests of sexually abusing them as children in Queens have joined a $300 million lawsuit filed in State Supreme Court Tuesday against church officials in the Diocese of Brooklyn, their attorney said.

The suit is the largest church-related lawsuit in New York City history in terms of the number of alleged victims and the damages sought, said Michael Dowd, the Manhattan lawyer.

The 43 plaintiffs, 38 of whom attended churches or schools in Queens at the time of the alleged incidents, are seeking punitive and compensatory damages in addition to reparations for pain and suffering, Dowd said. The men and women who brought the suit in State Supreme Court in Queens ranged in age from 7 to 14 when the suspected abuse occurred.

The suit charges priests, bishops and the entire Diocese of Brooklyn because the victims claim the diocese knew of the sex cases, did nothing to permanently remove the priests and thus endangered the children for whom they were responsible.

“This kind of abuse would have been impossible without the knowing silence of people high in authority in the Diocese of Brooklyn,” Dowd told a news conference in his Fifth Avenue office. “We think we will establish, without question, that not only were (the bishops) complicit, but they really by their suppression of the truth allowed children to be literally raped and sodomized over decades.”

Frank DeRosa, a spokesman for the Brooklyn Diocese, did not return repeated phone calls.

Among the priests named in the lawsuit, the Rev. James Smith was accused of abusing 26 of the 43 victims. Most of the alleged abuses took place at Holy Trinity Parish Church in Whitestone and Our Lady of Grace Parish in Howard Beach.

Dowd said Smith, who was a priest at St. Kevin’s Parish in Flushing before he stepped down earlier this year, allegedly fondled male and female children and sometimes took them to a home on Long Island for overnight stays.

“I think it would be a mistake to assume that this lawsuit reflects accurately the worst offenders in terms of priests,” he said. “I think there are worse offenders out there, and I think it’s a matter of time before we find that out.”

Other Queens clergy, churches or schools affiliated with the Diocese where alleged abuses took place, according to the suit, include: Father James Collins of St. Michael’s Parish Church in Flushing, St. Margaret’s Parish Church in Middle Village and Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish Church in Forest Hills; Father Romano Ferraro of St. Joseph’s Parish Church in Astoria; Father George Stack of Resurrection Ascension Parish Church in Rego Park;

Brother John McLoughlin of Cathedral Preparatory in Elmhurst; Father Edward Maurer of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish Church in Forest Hills; Father Vincent Zollo of Our Lady of Grace Parish Church in Howard Beach; and Fathers Ronald P. Petroski and Joseph Byrns of St. Anastasia Parish Church in Douglaston.

The Queens district attorney’s office had investigated claims of sexual abuse on the part of priests in the borough, but it did not bring charges because the statute of limitations had expired.

But Dowd said even though the statute of limitations had lapsed several years after all the 43 alleged victims turned 18, the cases were still relevant because the church allegedly violated its “loco parentis,” or guardianship obligation, to be responsible for the general welfare of children put in their care.

The lawyer said the male and female plaintiffs were students at either Catholic schools run by the diocese or participants in after-school Catholic education programs.

Dowd did not know if any of the priests named in the lawsuit were still actively practicing in Queens or in other parts of the country. He said at least 10 additional victims would come forward to add their names to the lawsuit and that he plans to file additional lawsuits against the dioceses of New York and Rockville Center, L.I.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘How in God’s name is this going to be stopped unless the Catholic Church in America really cleans house, top to bottom, of the people who were responsible for letting this sorry state of affairs continue?” he said. “How is the church going to have any credibility until they do something about the child molesters, the sexual predators that exist in the church?”

Dowd contended the Brooklyn Diocese covered up the abuses during the administrations of three bishops, Bishop Thomas Daily, Bishop Francis Mugavero and Bishop Bryan McEntegart. Each bishop served successively, beginning with McEntegart and ending with Daily, between 1957 and the present.

The lawsuit says Daily is responsible for “all acts and omissions of Bishops McEntegart and Mugavero.”

Dowd said the $300 million in damages are to compensate victims for the emotional suffering the abuses caused them. He said some alleged victims are receiving Social Security checks because of their emotional distress, while others turned to alcohol or substance abuse after the alleged incidents.

The lawyer said the involvement of so many churches in Queens reflected the diocese’s decision to transfer and silence rather than permanently remove priests accused of sexual abuse.

He maintained he was aware of secret agreements the Brooklyn Diocese attempted to make with some of the alleged victims named in the lawsuit to keep them from coming forward with allegations of abuse.

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 156

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