A WINDOW CLOSED. AN ISLAND CHANGED. This story is the second in a four-part series examining the impact of the Child Victims Act.
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Scores of priests who served many different Catholic churches on Staten Island over the years have been named in either substantiated complaints of sex abuse or allegations being played out in civil court.
SHOULD PRIESTS BE ALLOWED TO MARRY?
One plaintiff who recently filed a lawsuit under the Child Victims Act alleges he was victimized by a priest at St. Clare’s R.C. Church in Great Kills, then later a Great Kills Babe Ruth League coach.
The suit names in part former priest Ralph LaBelle, who served at St. Clare’s from 1979 to 1985. It is one of about a half dozen lawsuits alleging LaBelle abused victims while he was assigned to the parish.
A man attending a recent service at the church said he plans to continue attending, though changes within the church are needed — especially when it comes to marriage.
“Maybe it’s a problem with the church not letting priests have marital relationships,” said Francesco Sciortino, 34, of Great Kills. “The Church of Christ is one thing... but the church that’s been built by man gets corrupt and there’s issues, so it’s not perfect.”
Judi Mondone, who was outside St. Margaret Mary’s in Midland Beach on a recent Sunday, suggested changes to the “hiring process” of priests.
“Why does it have to be men?” she said. “They’re able to have girls be altar servers, so why can’t women [be priests]?
After 60 years of delivering Mass on Staten Island, Monsignor Thomas Bergin says he knew many of the priests on some level who have been accused of misconduct or forced out of the church, but wasn’t aware at the time of any sexual misconduct.
“Hindsight is worth a lot, so when you hear that about somebody you think, ‘well maybe I should have... there should have been a caution light with this guy,’” Monsignor Bergin said. “It’s a horror; I throw my hands up and say ‘why.’”
He said he doesn’t think allowing priests to get married is the answer, based on the fact married men also are arrested for pedophilia.
“My experiences with guys over the years is they come in with the best intentions... but somewhere along the line — and I don’t think it’s because they’re single or unmarried — maybe they lose the perspective they had when they entered and get involved in some of these horrible things.”
One part of the process that has changed in recent years is the age at which men are becoming ordained priests. While at one time entering the seminary after high school or even grammar school, a 2013 survey found the median age of ordinands that year was 32.
Monsignor Bergin said he’s also noticed a shift in some parishioners’ reverence for priests at Sunday Mass, where in some cases he said parishioners now prefer the title “sir” instead of “father.”
“There’s a general sense of ‘we’re all equal, nobody’s on a pedestal anymore, and we’re all God’s children.”
FAITH REMAINS STRONG
A former altar boy at Sacred Heart R.C. Church in West Brighton recently levied shocking claims of sexual and verbal abuse perpetrated decades ago by a priest.
According to the lawsuit, the victim was 11 years old when he was first abused by Rev. Thomas Curley. The alleged incidents occurred on church property, except for one time on a parish-sponsored bus trip to an amusement park. Some happened on or near the altar, the filing alleges.
A 19-year-old woman attending a recent Mass at the church said the onslaught of lawsuits over the past two years haven’t impacted her practice of worship.
“I’ve just always been faithful throughout my life since I was a kid,” said Julia C. of Willowbrook. “I’ve just never really changed because I’ve grown up in the Catholic schools and always felt pretty safe I guess.”
NOT ALL ALLEGATIONS MAY BE TRUE
In July, Rev. Thomas Devery penned a letter to parishioners at Our Lady Star of the Sea R.C. Church in Huguenot announcing he’d be leaving his post while an accusation of sex abuse is investigated.
He referenced in his message a previous allegation of sex abuse that he claimed was found to be unsubstantiated.
“Now, a second lawsuit has been filed against me, again alleging sexual abuse of a minor more than 40 years ago,” the pastor’s letter said. “As with the earlier allegation, I steadfastly deny this new allegation, and trust that it, too, will be found to be unsubstantiated.
Outside the church on a recent Sunday, one parishioner said that, while she believes many of the allegations of sex abuse within the Catholic church are legitimate, she questioned those levied against Father Devery, as well as a second priest at the parish, Rev. Basil Akut.
“I’m sure there are absolutely people who have been abused... but I don’t believe that [they] did anything,” said Diane Patton, 63, of Tottenville.
Another parishioner in her 70s said she feels several things could be changed in how the hierarchy of the Catholic church is structured to help prevent future acts of sex abuse.
“It goes all the way to the top,” said the Prince’s Bay woman, who asked only her initials A.K. be published. “Things have to change and it needs to be done pretty soon, because the more these scandals come out the more people that are losing not their faith, but their trust.”
‘THE PEOPLE ARE STILL FAITHFUL’
“I’m sure some people have left and don’t come anymore because of the scandals, which have killed us, of course,” Monsignor Bergin said. “But my perspective has been...they still value [priests], they still cherish us.”
He spoke about one of the things he cherishes about Sundays, saying it’s the conversations with parishioners on the steps of the church after Mass that keep him going.
“It’s a great booster, because your morale can get shot when you hear case after case after case,” the Monsignor said.
“From my perspective as a guy who’s been on the Island for so many years, the people are still faithful.”