Women accuses priest of abuse in Whitestone

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The words fell out of Carol Poppito’s mouth almost by accident.

In 1991, Poppito, who grew up in Whitestone, was driving to a bridal shower with her mother, sister and aunt. The women were discussing the Catholic clergy, who Poppito’s mother began to praise.

“I turned to my mother and said, ‘Well, your friend Father Smith did this to me,’” said Poppito, now 41, who began telling her family that he had sexually molested her when she was a child in Whitestone.

Poppito referred to the Rev. James Smith, 71, who was recently forced to step down from his post as pastor of St. Kevin’s Church in Flushing amid sex abuse allegations. As they sped down the highway, Poppito said she went on to tell her family that she was victimized by Smith while she was a student at the Holy Trinity School in Whitestone.

“We got a speeding ticket right after that,” Poppito said in an interview with the TimesLedger. She now lives on Long Island.

Poppito is just one of more than 20 people who have said Smith molested them when they were children, according to Michael Dowd, an attorney representing the accusers.

Smith allegedly abused these men and women from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, during which he served in churches in Howard Beach, Middle Village as well as at the Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Whitestone, Dowd said.

The TimesLedger has been unable to reach Smith for comment about the allegations.

In a letter read to parishioners at St. Kevin’s April 7, Bishop Thomas Daily of the Brooklyn Diocese said Smith had denied the sex abuse allegations. Queens parishes are covered by the Brooklyn Diocese.

But Poppito said she has proof that Smith knows he abused her.

After her revelations to her family in the car in 1991, Poppito’s mother called Smith, Poppito said. Smith in turn responded with a handwritten letter, apologizing to Poppito for having abused her, Poppito said.

“I cannot blame you. I deserve it,” Poppito said the letter reads.

Beginning when she was in the fifth grade, Poppito said she was taken out of class several times a year and sexually abused by Smith in the stairwells of Holy Trinity and in the nurse’s office.

“I felt nothing — detachment,” she said. “I can see how split personalities are formed.”

Poppito, the eldest of seven children, told no one.

Poppito said Smith asked her to spend time with him after school but she was never forced to meet with him because she was constantly going to swim practice.

“I was saved by the swimming. I had swimming practice every night.”

The abuse only stopped when Poppito graduated from the school at the end of eighth grade and moved on to St. Francis Prep, she said.

Poppito graduated from high school as an A student and went on to college. She began working in banking, living in both Manhattan and Whitestone. In 1988, she married and moved to Long Island, telling only her husband about what had happened with Smith.

Poppito did not tell the rest of the family until the 1991 car ride.

Poppito was initially angry at her mother for contacting Smith but eventually came to approve of her actions.

“His confession meant it wasn’t my nightmare,” she said. “It’s harder to hide something if it’s written down in black and white.”

Poppito said she then folded up the letter and put it away.

The ultrasound technologist did not think to go public with the 1991 letter until two weeks ago, when the bishop of the Brooklyn Diocese composed the letter to St. Kevin’s parishioners saying Smith contended he was innocent.

Recently, Poppito, who has never ceased to be a practicing Catholic, has begun discussing the issue of sexual abuse with her oldest son, who is 11.

Poppito said she was upset by a recent New York Post story in which Smith was quoted as saying he could not remember having ever committed abuse.

“If he’s going to say no he didn’t do it, I’m going to say yes he did it right back in his face,” she said.

“And if someone else wants to talk to me or draw strength from me or just cry on my shoulder, I’m there. I would be more than happy.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.

Updated 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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