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Lawsuit Goes to Trial Against the Long Island Diocese Over Sexual Abuse of Teenagers

April 16, 2007

GARDEN CITY, N.Y., April 15 — A rare civil trial involving sexual abuse and the Roman Catholic Church starts here on Monday, and jury selection last week gave a hint of what could come.

Some potential jurors said the case was too disturbing to hear. Others said they were too angry to serve impartially. One woman, Antoinette Valentino, said she was Catholic but was “enraged against the Catholic Church.” She was not chosen. Another woman said, “I’m Catholic and I’m not going against the diocese,” and also was excused.

And a few revealed that they or their relatives had been victims of sexual abuse, although they did not accuse the church.

The case before the jury in State Supreme Court in Nassau County is noteworthy not only for its potential for disturbing testimony, but also for the fact that it has gotten this far at all.

Despite thousands of complaints of sexual abuse of children involving the Catholic Church in the United States in recent years, few have resulted in court cases, and most of those never come to trial. A vast majority of the abuse lawsuits ended in settlements, with the victims and the accused spared the embarrassment of testifying.

In this case, a young man and a young woman plan to take the stand to say that Matthew Maiello, in the late 1990s when he was rock music Mass director and led the youth ministry in an East Meadow church, repeatedly had sex with them beginning when they were 15. Mr. Maiello, now 33, also directed them to have sex with each other and group sex with him, plying them with drugs and alcohol, they have said in court papers.

The abuse occurred many times over three years, the victims said in their lawsuit, in many places, including a church, a convent, a parochial school, a rectory, his home, a motel, a car and a boat. Mr. Maiello recorded more than an hour of the sexual activity on videotape, which will be submitted as evidence.

The trial will also hear surprise testimony. A witness who only recently came forward says that as a teenager she was abused by Mr. Maiello at another Long Island church a decade before he was arrested. She and her parents say that they warned church representatives about him, but that no action was taken.

In the lawsuit, the two plaintiffs are seeking $150 million from Mr. Maiello; St. Raphael’s Roman Catholic Church in East Meadow, where he worked; the pastor who hired him, the Rev. Thomas Haggerty; and the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

Mr. Maiello pleaded guilty in 2003 to rape and sodomy charges involving four minors, including the two plaintiffs. He served two years in prison and now lives in Connecticut. He is not contesting the lawsuit and is expected to testify. His lawyer, Lawrence V. Carra, described him as “remorseful.”

The lawsuit says the church, the supervising priest and the diocese ignored warnings that Mr. Maiello was an abuser. The victims’ lawyer, Michael G. Dowd of Manhattan, said that years ago, other parishioners had raised concerns about Mr. Maiello’s hiring and his conduct with youths, prompting several parents to demand a meeting with the parish priest.

Brian R. Davey, a lawyer for the parish, the diocese and Father Haggerty, said church officials had been unaware of any criminal behavior by Mr. Maiello until he was arrested. They had “only a few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle” and should not be judged with “20/20 hindsight,” he said in court.

“It is Matthew Maiello who bears 100 percent of the responsibility,” Mr. Davey said during jury selection, pointing to the empty chair reserved for Mr. Maiello’s lawyer. “We are not responsible.”

But Mr. Dowd says his case received a jolt in December, when an unsolicited letter came through his fax machine.

The letter’s writer, who had learned about the lawsuit in a news report, claimed that she, too, had been abused by Mr. Maiello, in the early 1990s in another parish.

The woman and her family have given depositions and said in a joint interview that they were eager to testify. Their names and the names of the other victims are being withheld because of the nature of the case.

“I felt I had to do something,” the woman said in an interview. She said she was still incensed at how Mr. Maiello, who was 19, had “brainwashed” and threatened her into having sex at 16 and eventually having group sex and being videotaped. She was especially upset that he was able to repeat the pattern and abuse others, she said. Mr. Carra said that Mr. Maiello would not comment on the woman’s claims.

The woman’s mother, who had been active in church organizations, said she was particularly pained because she had urged her daughter to join the youth ministry’s band as a volunteer. Mr. Maiello was quite “charming” at first, the mother said.

Soon after he began having sex with the daughter and psychologically abusing her, her mother said, she confided in a school official and a church leader.

The daughter said she eventually complained to another church leader and told fellow volunteers. Her father said he pleaded with a priest to intervene but was brushed aside — a priest who was later accused of abusing another child.

“It was our involvement with the church that nearly tore our family apart,” the father said. At the worst point, the daughter secretly mutilated herself, cutting her arms and legs, she said.

Even after she broke from Mr. Maiello’s control and returned home, her father said, “She slept with a baseball bat under her bed, and I found she had taken a hammer and nails and nailed all the basement windows shut.”

When Mr. Maiello was arrested years later, the woman and her parents said, they spoke at length with investigators for the diocese. The family turned over copies of taped telephone calls and the daughter’s detailed calendars and her purple spiral-bound journal.

The diocese was urging people with complaints to come forward to aid in investigations, and Bishop William Murphy was offering “therapy and pastoral care” to victims. But the family said they never heard back from the diocese.

And though opponents in a lawsuit are supposed to disclose relevant material to each other, Mr. Dowd said the diocese never informed him that its investigators had learned about an earlier victim.

“The ball has been dropped so many times, for years,” the mother said. “If they had only listened to what we tried to do all along, these poor children would not have gone through what they did.”

The diocese declined to comment last week on the woman’s account, or the lawyer’s assertion that it withheld information from the plaintiffs.

Experts say that the Long Island case is unusual for several reasons, not the least of which is simply getting it to trial.

Across the nation, only a small fraction of complaints involving the Catholic Church have resulted in prosecutions or litigation. Among the main hurdles are secrecy, shame, lack of corroborating evidence, the statute of limitations and the credibility of emotionally troubled victims, said Laurence E. Drivon, a victims’ lawyer in Stockton, Calif. Of the legal cases filed, few are actually tried.

“This is a very important case,” said Jeffrey R. Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., a leading victims’ lawyer in church cases for 23 years. “Most cases are dismissed on the statute of limitations without getting to the merits,” he said. The rest are often settled, usually in secret agreements. Since 2002, only a dozen or so cases have gone to trial, he estimated. Videotaped and group sex are also “very unusual,” Mr. Anderson said. Generally “these are crimes of secrecy, rarely in the presence of witnesses,” he said.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre does not release statistics on abuse complaints, legal cases and payments. Across the country, the National Conference of Bishops says, the sex scandals have cost $1.5 billion so far, much of it for out-of-court payments.

Covering Long Island and its 1.4 million Roman Catholics, the diocese is one of the nation’s largest and wealthiest. But its attendance and donations slumped after a sweeping report by a Suffolk County grand jury in 2003 found a long history of sexual abuse, deception and cover-up by church authorities. The grand jury cited 23 cases over many years, mostly beyond the statute of limitations.

Aside from laying the responsibility for the abuse on Mr. Maiello, who has few assets, the church defendants — though they share legal representation — argued in court papers that the diocese is not responsible for the activities of the parish, which was described as “a completely separate legal entity.” That may be an attempt to insulate the diocese from a possible costly verdict. The church also argued in court papers that the victims were partly responsible, but Mr. Davey, who appeared stung when Mr. Dowd noted that to prospective jurors, announced that he would withdraw that argument.

The selection of six jurors and three alternates finished on Friday, after 91 other members of the jury pool were excused. Though the suit could be settled out of court, Mr. Davey told the prospective jurors that will not happen. “You will be rendering a verdict,” he said.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests