Reviled by Catholic leaders, this NJ activist has helped many victims of clergy sex abuse
As an advocate for survivors of clergy sex abuse and a watchdog of the Catholic Church, Robert Hoatson is accustomed to provoking the wrath of Catholic leaders.
He's also no stranger to the consequences of his nearly five decades of activism, including being fired from his job, suspended from the priesthood and treated with disdain by church colleagues.
So when Hoatson was recently informed that he's receiving an accolade for his crusade from a Catholic institution, he was shocked.
"They called me out of the blue and said they now realize I was right and my work is crucial and they're giving me this honor," said Hoatson in disbelief.
The West Orange resident will be inducted next month into the Essex Catholic High School Hall of Fame, alongside a roster of some 200 Catholics who were honored for professional achievements and service to their communities.
Hoatson, a 1970 graduate of the school, will join ex-Yankees catcher Rick Cerone (class of 1972) and Martin Liquori (class of 1967), a record-setting runner who competed in the 1968 Olympics.
The Newark-based school, which was sponsored by the Archdiocese of Newark and operated by the Irish Christian Brothers, closed in 2003 but maintains an active alumni group.
"He's a very courageous person to take on the juggernaut of the Catholic church," said William Vantuono, one of several alumni who nominated Hoatson for the honor. Vantuono noted that Hoatson protested outside the venue of the school's alumni dinner to raise awareness of inappropriate conduct by ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose name was subsequently removed from the hall of fame.
Phil Nufrio, a classmate who recalls Hoatson's impressive academic and extracurricular achievements, referred to his work as heroic. "He holds organizations and the church accountable," said Nufrio, adding that the committee's decision to honor Hoatson was unanimous. "He's been a strong voice for the victims."
Over the past two decades, the silver-haired priest-turned whistleblower has been a fixture at protests, at press conferences, and outside of churches and other public spaces, where he's often a one-man protest who exhibits defiant, homemade signs demanding that Catholic leaders take accountability for clergy abuse and the subsequent cover-up.
Most recently, Hoatson displayed a sign in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan asking Cardinal Timothy Dolan to remove Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, a Brooklyn bishop who was accused of clergy abuse by two minors. On the day after the Camden Diocese declared bankruptcy, Hoatson held a sign in front of diocese headquarters that read "Church Bankruptcy Equals Cover-Up."
When he's not protesting, he's busy helping survivors of abuse. As president of Road to Recovery, an organization he co-founded to aid sexual abuse survivors around the world, he spends most days fielding calls and e-mails from survivors and their families. Before the pandemic, he often traveled throughout the country to meet the survivors in person.
He co-founded the non-profit in 2003 with Monsignor Kenneth Lasch, a retired priest from the Diocese of Paterson, who has also been helping victims of abuse for several decades.
Hoatson estimates that since its establishment, Road to Recovery has helped some 5,000 people. Much of the assistance involves financial, legal and psychological support for those grappling with a painful past.
Many clergy abuse survivors say Hoatson helped them through their darkest moments. "He played a huge role in helping me get through my experience of coming forward about my abuse," said Joe Capozzi, a clergy abuse survivor from Ridgefield. "Dealing with the Archdiocese of Newark was at times worse than the abuse I experienced. But Bob guided and protected me from their questionable tactics. He was a big part in restoring my faith and trust in people."
Mitchell Garabedian, the attorney known for representing sexual abuse victims and who was portrayed in the 2015 film "Spotlight," praised Hoatson as a selfless advocate for survivors. "For many sexual abuse victims, Robert is the last stop to try and manage the pain caused by sexual abuse and he always keeps his door open to provide help."
Faced abuse himself
Hoatson is able to do more than listen: he also provides empathy as someone who is acutely familiar with the torment spawned by clergy abuse.
Hoatson said he was abused on several occasions, beginning as a child by a parish priest and parish custodian in West Orange, and in adulthood by three Irish Christian Brothers, a religious order he was part of for 23 years.
He sued the Archdiocese of Newark and the Congregation of Christian Brothers and the brothers who abused him in a 2005 RICO lawsuit.
The suit accused the Newark archdiocese and other Catholic agencies of failing to stop their clergy from engaging in abuse and for retaliating against him for helping survivors.
His lawsuit was thrown out by the federal judge, who fined the lawyer who filed it, citing "unprofessional" work. Archdiocese spokespeople called the suit "libelous."
"The judge said we couldn't prove that the church was an organized crime entity," said Hoatson. Because the other claims still stood, the case was moved to state court, where it was thrown out because the statute of limitations had passed, said Hoatson.
The abuse led to depression and anxiety, which necessitated years of therapy, said Hoatson, adding that he wasn't able to confront the church about it until he was 50. Helping others gave him strength, he said. "It was my own therapy. As soon as I started helping others, my recovery started."
Road to Recovery doesn't charge for its services, but collects donations to cover operating expenses. Hoatson's $20,000 salary, as well as his health and car insurance, comes from the donations, he said.
Hoatson attributes the prevalence of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to several factors, including mandatory celibacy of priests, which he says is unnatural, and the church hierarchy.
"In the Catholic Church, power becomes absolute. In what other occupation can a man at 25 instantly be pedestalized by a whole group of people? The priests begin to think they can do whatever they want."
The church, he said, "is a monarchy run by one man who gives power to whomever he wants. It needs to be changed to a democracy, where all the faithful have a say in how the church is governed."
And finally, the lack of women in leadership positions in the church has also contributed to the crisis, he said. "If women had been prominent throughout the church, none of this could have occurred. They wouldn't have allowed it."
Critics suggest that Hoatson's record is more complicated than that of a hero who fights for justice. Some of the cases he campaigned for were questioned or rejected, including his own. And a survivor whom he allegedly tried to help sued him in 2009, claiming that Hoatson tried to extort settlement money from him. That case was dismissed.
"His lawyer borrowed money and said he will pay me back when the settlement was reached," said Hoatson. "I said you don't have to pay me back but he did anyway. Afterwards he sued me, saying that I had extorted it from the lawyer. But I never asked for the money."
Hoatson also became embroiled in a high profile case against Bernie Fine, an assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University, by supporting several men who claimed Fine had abused them. The accusers were eventually discredited but Hoatson insists they were telling the truth.
Fine was terminated from his position in November 2011, but an investigation found no evidence of abuse and no charges were filed against him. Syracuse University officials declined to comment for this story.
Doubt about a victim's claim is painfully common, said Hoatson. "The initial reaction by everyone is always that `it didn't happen.' People think anyone coming forward with allegations is a gold digger."
Lasch, who praised Hoatson's dedication to the cause, said his single-minded devotion has earned him harsh critics. "His style is different. He's out there on the streets calling attention to the issue."
"It doesn't mean that every case he attacks will win," Lasch said. "Many of the victims he helps are troubled, and they can bite the hand of the one who is feeding them."
Golf pro, or lawyer?
Growing up in West Orange, the second child in a family of five, everyone thought Hoatson would become a golf pro, because of his natural talent in that sport, or a lawyer, because he was a debate champion in school. But when he encountered the Irish Christian Brothers at his high school, everything changed. "I was impressed by their teaching and support and decided to join them."
He entered the religious order after high school, and subsequently earned a masters degree and doctorate from Fordham University in church and non-public school leadership in 1988.
He spent 23 years as a brother in the Christian Brothers while enjoying a career in education, serving as a principal of several Catholic schools, including the Sacred Heart School in Yonkers, New York and The Holy Trinity School in Hackensack. He was named Educator of the Year by the Association of Teachers of New York in 1990.
He also served as assistant dean of the school of education at St. John's University in New York.
Disillusioned by the clergy abuse he experienced and saw in the Christian Brothers, he resigned from the order in 1994 to become a Catholic diocese priest. "I mistakenly thought they would be less likely to engage in sexual abuse," he said. "I was naive."
Shortly after he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest with the Newark Archdiocese in 1997, he discovered sexual abuse was rampant there too. "I didn't realize how plentiful it was. I was propositioned in the seminary and heard about (Cardinal) McCarrick sleeping with seminarians. What I saw was even worse than in the Christian Brothers."
Hoatson said he was highly sensitive and aware of clergy abuse when it occurred around him because he had experienced it himself. "At every place I was stationed there was sexual abuse," he said.
When a priest accused of abuse, Peter Cheplic, was about to be moved into his rectory in West Orange in 2003, Hoatson went to Arthur Serratelli, then an auxiliary bishop of the Newark Archdiocese,. According to Hoatson, Serratelli expressed sympathy for Cheplic. "I said I won't live there with a pedophile priest and Serratelli said, `So you move out,'" Hoatson said.
Serratelli would go on to serve as bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, before retiring earlier this year. Neither he nor the Paterson Diocese returned calls or e-mails seeking comment.
Cheplic was included last year in a list of clergy that the Newark Archdiocese said had been "credibly accused" of sexual misconduct. His whereabouts couldn't immediately be determined.
Concluding that the church wasn't going to seriously address clergy abuse, Hoatson launched his career as a watchdog and advocate.
Shortly thereafter, in June 2003, he testified in the New York State Assembly in Albany and called for the resignation of all bishops who had covered up clergy abuse.
His advocacy was not well received by his Catholic superiors: He was called in to the archdiocese headquarters, where Serratelli complained about the "inflammatory things" Hoatson had said in Albany. "They asked me to tone down my language and remember my pledge of obedience," Hoatson recalled.
Serratelli also fired him from his position as director of schools at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Newark,where he had worked for two years.
When he sued the Newark Archdiocese for retaliating against him, he was suspended from the priesthood. Disillusioned with the church, he sought to be completely removed from it: The Vatican granted his voluntary removal from the priesthood in 2011.
The Newark and the New York archdioceses as well as the Christian Brothers did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
Most recently, Hoatson's claim to the Newark Archdiocese's Independent Victims' Compensation program of abuse by a parish priest in the early 1960s was rejected, although another victim of the same West Orange parish priest during the same time period received a settlement. The Record and NorthJersey.com spoke to the other victim, who confirmed that he was abused by the same priest at St. Joseph's parish in West Orange and received a settlement.
In a letter to Hoatson, the compensation commission said that "the Administrators have concluded that the facts and circumstances of the claim of clergy sexual abuse in this case do not provide sufficient corroboration and support for the allegations made in your claim form."
But the 68-year-old Hoatson has never let such "punishments" stop him from his important wo...