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2 Raped by New York Minister Are Awarded $11.45 Million

By BRUCE LAMBERT - The New York Times
May 19, 2007

GARDEN CITY, N.Y., May 18 — In one of the largest judgments in a child sexual abuse suit against the Roman Catholic Church, a Long Island jury on Friday awarded a total of $11.45 million in damages to a young man and woman who were repeatedly raped by a youth minister as teenagers starting in the late 1990s.

The jury deliberated for seven days before finding that the Diocese of Rockville Centre, the sixth-largest in the United States; a church in East Meadow; and its pastor were negligent by hiring and retaining the man who abused the plaintiffs over a period of three years.

After the verdict, the woman tearfully embraced her mother, then held an impromptu news conference in a hallway at State Supreme Court in Nassau County. Saying that thousands of children have been victimized, she added, “I am their voice.”

The purpose of her suit was to “see the truth come out” and to “prevent the abuse of children everywhere,” she said. “Children cannot protect themselves from sexual predators.”

While awaiting his turn to speak, the other victim collapsed in the arms of a lawyer, and court aides had to revive him with oxygen.

“He was just overcome with emotion,” said one of his lawyers, Paul A. Mones.

Later, in a telephone interview, the young man said, “It was extremely difficult for me to relive the experience through the litigation process.” But he urged other victims to come forward because “these kids are going to need therapy and support — you have no idea.”

Both the woman, 23, and the man, 22, testified during the three-week trial that they suffered anxiety, depression, flashbacks, nightmares and difficulties in their careers and in social and romantic relationships as a result of being raped and sodomized by the youth minister, Matthew Maiello.

The jurors, four men and two women — most of them Catholics themselves — left the courthouse without comment.

A lawyer for the church defendants, Kevin McNiff of the firm Mulholland, Minion & Roe, said they were reviewing the verdict and their options.

A diocese spokesman, Sean Dolan, said it was “too early to say” if it would appeal.

“We humbly accept the decision of the jury,” Mr. Dolan added. “We need to try to understand better in terms of the actual dollar amount what that all means. We want to focus on the lessons we’ve learned over the last few years in creating the safest church environment we can. We’re really saddened by the terrible actions of Matthew Maiello, and I hope the award given by the jury helps the victims.”

The jury’s awards approached the $6 million given to each of two victims in a California case in 1998, according to Jeffrey Anderson, a lawyer who specializes in sexual abuse cases but was not involved in the Long Island case.

But the Long Island case was notable for more than the size of the judgments. Public attention in church cases has often focused on accused priests rather than on employees other than clergy members, like Mr. Maiello, now 33, who pleaded guilty in 2003 to raping and sodomizing four minors, including the two who sued. He served two years in prison and now lives in Connecticut.

This lawsuit was also the first abuse case against the Catholic Church in New York State — and one of the few in the nation — to go to a jury verdict. Most such suits against the church are dismissed, often because of the statute of limitations, or are quietly settled out of court.

“You very rarely get a chance to hear from the victims — how these guys operate, how the kids get trapped and how the parents get fooled — almost never,” said Mr. Mones, one of the lawyers. “And almost never do you get to hear a pedophile testify in detail; that’s very rare.” Mr. Maiello was subpoenaed to testify at the civil trial.

Convictions in most criminal cases on child sexual abuse, including Mr. Maiello’s, result from plea bargains.

The jury attributed 70 percent of the blame to Mr. Maiello, who did not contest the suit and has few assets.

But the jury also ruled that the church defendants — the Diocese of Rockville Centre; St. Raphael’s Roman Catholic Church in East Meadow; and its pastor, the Rev. Thomas Haggerty — acted “with reckless disregard for the safety of others in the negligent hiring and retention” of Mr. Maiello.

That finding of recklessness means that the church defendants are responsible to pay the full award if Mr. Maiello does not have the money for his share, said the victims’ lead lawyer, Michael G. Dowd.

The jury awarded $2.5 million to each victim for injuries and suffering to date, as well as $250,000 annually to the woman for the next 12 years, and $115,000 annually to the young man for the next 30 years. Her total would be $5.5 million, and his would be $5.95 million.

The diocese, comprising 1.4 million Catholics in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, is one of the nation’s largest and wealthiest. It was the target of a scathing Suffolk County grand jury report in 2003 that found years of sexual abuse complaints that were ignored and covered up.

Since then the diocese has imposed new safeguards, including background checks on employees and volunteers and preventive education for them and for church members.

The victims testified that Mr. Maiello pressured them into having sex with each other and him, plying them with marijuana and alcohol and videotaping them. The abuses started when, as 15-year-old virgins, they were summoned by him to his basement office. The abuse was repeated for years: in the school, rectory, convent and sanctuary, and later in homes, motels, a car, a truck and a boat, they said.

Mr. Maiello said that “God’s plan” brought them together, they said. He gave them prized roles in musical productions but also threatened harm through Mafia connections if they told their secrets, they said.

Other witnesses said that Father Haggerty hired Mr. Maiello even though he knew about Mr. Maiello’s “boundary” and “touching” issues and that Mr. Maiello’s supervisor at another church had said that he could not give a positive recommendation.

The witnesses also said Father Haggerty had ignored the advice of the parish business manager against the hiring and did not sufficiently heed complaints about Mr. Maiello’s conduct once he was hired.

The church’s lawyer, Brian R. Davey, argued that Mr. Maiello was totally at fault, church officials never knew about his crimes and they should not be blamed when the victims’ families saw nothing amiss.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests