Bitterness in Brooklyn Diocese Over Abuse
By DANIEL J. WAKIN, NY Times - March 15, 2002
When three nuns came forward in 1996 with reports that three
priests had sexually abused adolescent boys in a Fort Greene
parish 20 years before, the Diocese of Brooklyn, led by Bishop
Thomas V. Daily, assured the nuns that it would act aggressively.
One priest, it turned out, had died. Another denied the charges.
But one, officials with the diocese said, confessed to having
molested a child.
The diocese said it forced that priest to give up his duties
at his parish, and that he had moved to Florida and was told
to no longer work as a priest. But the diocese never informed
the nuns or the victim of its action. And, as was then common
practice, the diocese decided not to notify law enforcement
officials who might have wanted to investigate whether the
priest who admitted to the sexual abuse victimized others
in the intervening years.
The case has left a trail of bitterness, as well as competing
claims over whether enough was done.
The nuns say they have made their allegations public because
they resent the diocese's secrecy and what they consider its
inadequate action. The diocese said it handled everything
fairly, that it had no responsibility to inform the nuns,
and that it wanted to contact the victim, but that he never
came forward. And following its policy and the usual practice
in other dioceses, it did not contact law enforcement officials
involving reports of abuse long ago.
The case, and others, shows the tension between church officials
who say they are handling the cases fairly and conscientiously,
and victims and others who say the church is mostly interested
in keeping the abuses quiet.
Charges that Bishop Daily failed to aggressively investigate
another complaint of sexual abuse surfaced this week when
a priest in New Jersey said he told the bishop in 1998 that
he had been abused years ago by a priest now in the Brooklyn
diocese, but that the bishop had done nothing more than ask
the priest and accept his denial. [Page B6.]
The details of those charges were first reported in The Boston
With the current wave of pedophile priest scandals, dioceses
around the country are poring through old personnel files
and re-examining sex abuse allegations. Many are turning over
the names of priests from long- gone cases to prosecutors
and even making the names public.
But Brooklyn is not one of them. In fact, no diocese in the
New York metropolitan area is turning over names wholesale,
though the bishops in Rockville Centre, on Long Island, and
New York this week signaled a willingness to report new cases
to the authorities. At the moment, New York law does not require
church officials unlike teachers, social workers and
other professionals who work with children to report
allegations of sexual abuse of minors to law enforcement agencies.
The priest involved in the Brooklyn case, now living in Florida
and no longer in active ministry, says the abuse never happened.
But the nuns involved in the case said the episode demonstrated
the consequences of the church's preference of keeping cases
of sexual abuse quiet and handled by its own officials. Indeed,
the victim who went to the nuns in the 1996 case, Carlos Cruz,
was stunned to hear from a reporter that the priest had been
disciplined at all.
"Get out of here!" he said. "Huh. That's news.
Right now, once these chills stop going through my body
I don't know. It's like a shock."
The nuns were not the only ones to go to the diocese to complain
about abuse at the Fort Greene church, St. Michael-St. Edward's.
Shortly after they made their complaint in 1996, a woman came
forward at their urging to make similar complaints about priests
at the parish regarding one of her two sons. The diocese said
the complaints involved the priest who had died, and that
it offered the sons counseling, but it again made no report
to law enforcement authorities.
For the nuns, the story of Mr. Cruz's experience best illustrates
the problems of how the diocese handles abuse cases. They
said they got wind of possible abuse at St. Michael-St. Edward's
Church dating to the mid- 1970's after a chance encounter
with the mother of the two sons in 1993. The nuns, Sisters
Sally Butler, Sheila Buhse and Georgianna Glose of the Dominican
order based in Amityville, N.Y., had served in the parish
church in the mid-1970's with the three priests.
After meeting with Mr. Cruz and trying to track down other
victims, the nuns who now do social work in Brooklyn
finally met with diocesan officials in January 1996.
They said they passed on an accusation by Mr. Cruz that one
of the priests, the Rev. Anthony J. Failla, had molested him.
They said Mr. Cruz himself was reluctant to report the abuse
personally, but the diocesan officials appeared to take the
In letters to the sisters in 1996, Monsignor Otto Garcia,
the chancellor of the diocese, said several times that he
wanted to speak directly to all the victims, including Mr.
Cruz. He promised that Bishop Daily would act "decisively
and responsibly" after an investigation.
"When we discovered that there were some allegations
with credibility, to the best of our ability, we investigated
them and we took action," Monsignor Garcia said in an
The main action was directed at Father Failla. "He admitted
an indiscretion," Monsignor Garcia said. "I think
there was some touching involved."
Father Failla, a beloved pastor who was active as an advocate
for the homeless and for low-cost housing, was ordered to
stop working as a priest and to undergo psychological counseling,
the monsignor said. The priest, who by that time had served
nearly 20 years at another church, St. Finbar's, abruptly
left in the summer of 1997, nearly 18 months after the diocese
first heard about the accusations against him. The parishioners
were never told about the allegations.
Father Failla now lives in Boca Raton, Fla. Frank DeRosa,
a spokesman for the Brooklyn Diocese, said Bishop Daily had
informed the Palm Beach bishop, Joseph Keith Symons, of Father
The Palm Beach Diocese acknowledged receiving a letter from
Brooklyn about his presence there. Bishop Symons himself later
resigned after admitting he had sexually molested five boys
earlier in his career. There is no indication that Father
Failla was active as a priest in the Palm Beach area.
Father Failla, in a telephone interview last week, denied
ever confessing to Monsignor Garcia that he molested Mr. Cruz.
"I'm sorry, he doesn't know what he's talking about,"
he said. "I'm really not impressed with what he said.
I think he misunderstood. I never fondled anybody, never touched
He said he had left St. Finbar's because he was ill, and
was not working as a priest. He said he did little but rest.
Monsignor Garcia said there was little the church could do
for Mr. Cruz because he never could be convinced to come forward
"We have asked time and time again that Carlos Cruz
be asked to come to speak with us," he said. "He
should contact us." The monsignor would not elaborate
on why the diocese could not at least relate the action it
had taken to Mr. Cruz through the nuns.
Mr. Cruz said he did not remember anyone telling him to go
to the diocese, and he never thought to. "I knew what
happened," he said. "Nothing was done about it."
The nuns said they were prompted to make their campaign public
because of news reports in January about court papers that
appeared to show that Bishop Daily had muted a sex abuse scandal
while serving as an auxiliary bishop in Boston in the 1980's.
They said they had felt frustrated by the diocese's response
to their reports of abuse at the parish. They said the victims
deserved special attention because they were poor, Latino
and in many ways powerless.
"The idea was to protect the church," Sister Buhse
said. "We wanted them to protect the children. We didn't
hear that at all."
St. Michael-St. Edward's Church, a gray brick building with
Romanesque arches and turrets, was built in 1891. Now, it
sits submerged in a forest of housing project buildings.
In the early 1970's, the church was the scene of an unusual
experiment. The three nuns were assigned there to help carry
out pastoral duties, a departure from traditional jobs like
teaching. They teamed up with the three priests there and
together, in 1975, also took on nearby St. Boniface's Church.
The New York Times devoted several lengthy articles to their
In 1973, Carlos Cruz was a 12-year- old living alone with
his mother in the Walt Whitman houses next door to St. Michael-St.
Edward's. Mr. Cruz soon took an after-school job doing chores
at the rectory.
That Christmas his mother bought him a drum set. After school,
Carlos would pick up his sticks, and his mother would come
out into the living room, dancing to the beat. One day she
did not emerge. She was dead. The priests and nuns took him
in, giving him a small room next to Father Failla.
"I figured it was all right there, a bunch of nuns and
priests," he said. At some point Mr. Cruz said
he did not remember exactly when Father Failla invited
him into his room to watch television.
"I remember dozing off and waking up, and he'd be touching
me, and trying to grab my hand to put it on him," he
said. "I was scared, you know, I'm like, what the hell,
you know. So I don't know, should I act like I'm asleep? Should
I get the hell out of here? Who's going to believe me? I wanted
to tell somebody, but I'm thinking, they'll call me a liar.
He's a priest."
The molestation continued for perhaps a year, he said. Mr.
Cruz said his "safe guess" was that it happened
about 10 times.
Mr. Cruz said he eventually reported the activity to another
priest. In 1975, Father Failla moved to St. Boniface, and
Sister Butler said she became a kind of mother to Mr. Cruz,
who still calls her Mom.
Mr. Cruz began acting violently and left the rectory at age
17, finding his way eventually to a quiet, slightly run-down
street in Schenectady, where he is living with his wife and
four of his five children. He said depression, insomnia and
agoraphobia prevented him from holding a job. He said he had
anxiety and panic attacks.
Now 40, he said he did not want an apology, and he did not
plan to file a lawsuit. "What are you saying sorry for,
the fact that you covered it up?" He said he wanted to
speak out to help rid himself of demons, and to help others.
In a broader sense, what happened to Mr. Cruz was part of
something that went awry at St. Michael-St. Edward's.
"There were probably too many boundaries not kept,"
said the nuns' former prioress, Sister Mary Hughes. "Those
were really bizarre times. Social activism was at its height."
Sister Hughes and Monsignor Garcia said alcohol was a problem
in the rectory and that the presence of a child living there
was unusual. Another boy who frequented the rectory, Richard
Vargas, now a social worker in Brooklyn, said talk about sex
by at least one of the priests was common.
Mr. Cruz, Mr. Vargas and the nuns all gave accounts of activities
like the "ice game," in which a priest would dump
a bucket of ice in the pants of a boy, or "pink belly,"
in which a boy would be held down while the priest would slap
Nearly 30 years later, bad blood is rampant. The nuns speak
angrily of the priests. And Monsignor Garcia does not welcome
the nuns' intervention any more, or their decision to make
public their claims.
"If the sisters performed what we think is a positive
service to us, we were grateful for that, but now it's time
for us to deal with the situation and directly with the people,"
As for the nuns, they say that the allegations of abuse have
been so upsetting that attending Mass makes them feel physically
sick. "It eats at your soul," Sister Butler said.