The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
SNAP Press Statement
For immediate release: Thursday, March 26, 2009
NY's highest court tosses Catholic sex case; SNAP responds
Statement by Barbara Dorris, SNAP National Outreach Director 314-862-7688
Once again, instead of defending himself on the merits, a Catholic bishop exploited legal technicalities in a clergy sex case. It's disappointing to continue seeing church officials acting more like cold-hearted CEOs instead of like compassionate shepherds.
If Rochester's bishop believes this priest is innocent, why not let the case be heard in court instead of taking advantage of legal loopholes to block it? Is it because he fears what other clergy sexual misdeeds and cover ups might be uncovered?
An educated, allegedly holy man who holds the revered title of minister or priest cannot ever have truly consensual and/or healthy sexual contact (whether once or repeatedly) with a congregant. It is always morally wrong and psychologically harmful.
This is especially true regarding Catholicism. Catholics have been raised since birth to believe priests are God's representatives on earth, can forgive our sins, can turn wafers and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Priests always hold an exalted position, and when they have any sexual involvement with parishioners, it is always wrong and hurtful.
But in any religious setting, there is an inherent power imbalance between clergy and church members. It is like a doctor-patient or therapist-client relationship, where any sexual contact is expressly forbidden. And for good reason: because it almost always results in devastation, with individuals and with congregations.
It's the duty of church officials to help congregants understand this. And it’s the duty of lawmakers to both help prevent this egregious and hurtful misconduct and to help those who suffer from it expose predators, get healing and achieve justice.
The clearest and easiest way to do this is to reform archaic, arbitrary and predator friendly laws that don’t acknowledge this reality.
(SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the nation’s oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims. We’ve been around for 20 years and have more than 8,000 members across the country. Despite the word “priest” in our title, we have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)
Contact David Clohessy (314-566-9790 cell, 314-645-5915 home), Peter Isely (414-429-7259) Barbara Blaine (312-399-4747), Barbara Dorris (314-862-7688), Mary Grant (626-419-2930), Mark Serrano (703-727-4940)
High court throws out case against diocese
The state’s highest court today threw out a claim against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester connected to an alleged sexual relationship between a priest and a parishioner.
The Rev. Peter DeBellis was accused of conducting a sexual relationship with a female member of Our Mother of Sorrows Church in Greece for more than three years. The married parishioner allegedly began a sexual relationship with DeBellis shortly after she started marriage counseling with him in November 2000.
The woman and her husband claimed in court papers that the counseling and sexual relationship continued until June 2004, despite repeated complaints to the Diocese of Rochester by the couple, and DeBellis’ transfer to a church in Geneva in May 2001.
The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in 2006. It was dismissed in February 2007 by Monroe County Supreme Court. A mid-level appeal court allowed the case to move forward. The Court of Appeals unanimously reversed that decision and dismissed the case.
Attorney Christina Agola, who represents the plaintiffs (named Jane and John Doe in court papers), said she will file a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
Philip Spellane, the lawyer for the Rochester Diocese, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Attorney Christopher Ciaccio, DiBellis’ lawyer, said he was very pleased with the outcome and believes his client would have prevailed if the case had gone forward.
Ciaccio said DiBellis left the area a few years ago and is with a mission parish in Southern California that helps Mexican immigrants. Ciaccio said he doesn’t believe DiBellis has been practicing as a priest because the case has been pending, but today’s decision means he could once again do that.
The plaintiffs claimed that DeBellis breached his fiduciary duty, meaning they believe that the priest did not live up to his obligation to conduct himself in an appropriate matter and in the interest of the parishioners, given his position and the marriage counseling services he was providing. They claimed the diocese was liable for negligent hiring, retention and supervision of the priest.
The state’s high court, citing a decision on another case, said in order to prove that a fiduciary duty exists between a cleric and congregant, the plaintiff would have to show that the parishioner “became uniquely vulnerable and incapable of self-protection regarding the matter at issue.” The judges said the lawsuit “falls short of what is necessary” for that kind of claim.
DiBellis, who grew up in Auburn, Cayuga County, was the only candidate for ordination in the Rochester Diocese in 1997. He told the Democrat & Chronicle in 1997 that he had been an investment manager with a Syracuse firm in the late 1980s but that he was missing something in his life and had decided to serve Christ. He was 38 at the time.
In 1995, when he was studying for the priesthood, DiBellis told the newspaper that he had enjoyed a “high-society life -- sex, drugs and rock and roll, basically,” but he had a lingering feeling of uneasiness.
“I would go out and sow my wild oats and go to church the next day and pray for crop failure,” DiBellis said.
“Christ was always calling me, but I was always running,” he told the newspaper.
DiBellis said the celibacy requirement keeps many men from entering the priesthood. “But we’re called to be intimate with Jesus,” he said. “With the sacrifice comes reward.”
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests