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NY Diocese Puts a Lawyer in Charge of Its Hot Line

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 molested them.

"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 heart surgery."

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio announced the hot line number, (888) 634-4499, on Aug. 6, more than a year after many other dioceses had them.

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 coordinators.

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 said.

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 cases.

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.


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests