NY Diocese Puts a Lawyer in Charge of Its Hot
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
August 31, 2004
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn has set up a hot line
for people to report sexual abuse by a priest. But in a decision
that has provoked anger among some advocates for victims, it
has appointed a lawyer to take the calls.
The advocates say that the arrangement is a recipe for further
suffering. A lawyer, they say, has little of the professional
compassion needed by abuse victims, could very well act more
in the interest of the diocese and makes a mockery of the
promise by the nation's bishops to put pastoral care above
legal strategy in dealing with people who say priests sexually
"For many victims, hot lines seem like one more effort
by the church leaders to try to keep all of this in house,"
said David Clohessy, the national director of Survivors Network
of Those Abused by Priests.
"People who are frightened and wounded need to talk
with sensitive, trained, helping professionals, not with a
lawyer who's trained in how to be adversarial," he said.
"At a bare minimum, it's like hiring a plumber to do
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio announced the hot line number, (888)
634-4499, on Aug. 6, more than a year after many other dioceses
The bishop said John M. Kurkemelis, a lawyer who came under
scrutiny for billing practices in the 1980's, would respond
to callers, either personally or to a message. Mr. Kurkemelis
will then pass on the allegations to the district attorneys
in Brooklyn or Queens, the two boroughs covered by the Brooklyn
Diocese, and suggest that the caller do the same. He will
also tell Bishop DiMarzio or his deputy and the diocese's
victims assistance coordinator, Sister Ellen Patricia Finn.
The appointment was reported yesterday in The New York Post.
Callers had previously been told to contact Sister Finn,
who was cited by the national bishops conference's Office
for Child and Youth Protection as one of 10 model assistance
The diocese said that having a 24-hour line staffed by a
nondiocesan employee would "help ease the anxiety"
of callers. A spokesman for the diocese, Frank DeRosa, said
Mr. Kurkemelis would not be "serving as a lawyer"
but as a transmitter of information.
He called him a "good person" who would be sensitive
to abuse victims, adding that it was unfair of critics to
take Mr. Kurkemelis to task before he had had a chance to
do his job.
"There's no evidence that the fact that he's a lawyer
has hurt anybody or has been a detriment," Mr. DeRosa
He said the lawyer was recommended to Bishop DiMarzio as
someone with a background in social service and family law.
He said he did not know who made the recommendation and had
few details about Mr. Kurkemelis's background. Relaying a
request for more background information, the spokesman said
that Mr. Kurkemelis replied that he did not have a résumé.
Directories showed that Mr. Kurkemelis was born in 1957,
received a bachelor's degree from Fordham University and was
admitted to the bar in 1983. A review of court records showed
that he has a solo practice in Brooklyn and has handled many
cases involving disinterment of bodies from cemeteries operated
by the Brooklyn diocese and representing people in divorce
Manhattan Lawyer, in an August 1989 article, identified a
John Kurkemelis as one of three lawyers audited by the New
York City comptroller's office. The audit focused on the system
for paying court-appointed lawyers and found that the lawyers
had engaged in "questionable" billing. Manhattan
Lawyer said that over a two-year period, Mr. Kurkemelis billed
the courts for 24 hours' worth of work in a single day on
13 occasions and questioned at least $13,000 of his billings.
Mr. Kurkemelis could not be reached for comment. A secretary
at his office referred calls to a number connecting to the
hot line, and he did not respond to messages left on it.
Mr. DeRosa relayed questions about the audit to Mr. Kurkemelis.
"He said that 'Nothing has ever been filed against me,'
" Mr. De Rosa said. "There's been no adverse disposition
of anything against him." Mr. DeRosa continued: "He's
obviously a man in good standing in his legal position. He's
an honorable, upstanding guy."
He refused to say what Mr. Kurkemelis was charging the diocese
for his services.
Dioceses in Sacramento, Seattle and Camden, N.J., have also
drawn complaints for assigning lawyers or people with law
degrees to respond to abuse reports. Bishop DiMarzio was bishop
in Camden before he took over in Brooklyn in late 2003 and
established the lawyer-staffed hot line there. In Camden he
was credited with acting quickly to reach out to victims there,
but he also fought lawsuits vigorously in court.