Saturday, May 19, 2007

Long Island, Big Payout

Ending a rare civil trial at which two victims of a lay youth minister sought $150 million, the diocese of Rockville Centre -- the US' sixth-largest -- was found liable to the tune of $11.45 mil:
There were hugs and tears in the courtroom after the six-person jury gave its decision after eight days of deliberations in favor of two people who were raped by their youth minister when they were teenagers.

Later, outside the courtroom of state Supreme Court Justice R. Bruce Cozzens, the male plaintiff, who declined to comment, fainted into the arms of one of his attorneys.

"It was just an overwhelming experience for him," said the attorney, Paul Mones.

The female victim's mother described how the experience in their East Meadow parish shook her once-deep faith.

"That church took a piece of my child's spirit," she said.

The lead attorney for the two plaintiffs -- a man and a woman now in their early 20s who are not being named by Newsday because they are victims of sex crimes -- said the decision sends a "loud and clear message" to the diocese.

"The church can no longer be reckless in the safety of children," said Michael Dowd of Manhattan. "It must protect children."

The jury awarded $2.5 million to each of the plaintiffs, who had sued their youth minister, Matthew Maiello; the priest who hired him, the Rev. Thomas Haggerty; his church, St. Raphael's Church in East Meadow, and the diocese for $150 million. The female plaintiff was also awarded $250,000 a year for the next 12 years. The jury ruled that the male plaintiff should get $115,000 a year for the next 30 years.

"No adults should turn a blind eye when it comes to concerns brought to their attention in regard to the safety of children," the female plaintiff said afterward. "The Rev. Thomas Haggerty did that and he is being held accountable."

Sean Dolan, a spokesman for the Rockville Centre diocese, said the church was considering its options, including appealing the verdict. "Based on the facts of the case, the diocese will seek to examine all of its alternatives and decide a future course with the advice of our attorneys," he said.

Haggerty, who like Maiello was not in the courtroom, and lawyers for the diocese were not available for comment. The case against the diocese -- the sixth largest in the country -- was closely watched as one of the few church sex abuse cases to come to trial.

"Over 99 percent of cases are settled in the quiet of lawyers' offices without seeing the light," Dowd said. "This case really showed exactly how these pedophiles operate and how the church responded."

During the trial, which began on April 16, the female plaintiff testified that she had sex with Maiello several times a week on church property beginning in 1999, when she was 15. A year later, she said, Maiello forced her to have sex with the male plaintiff, who was 15, while Maiello videotaped them. Both testified that they now suffer from depression and are unable to maintain romantic relationships.

Maiello, 33, formerly of Lynbrook and now living in Stamford, Conn., served more than two years in prison after admitting he coerced the plaintiffs and two other teenagers into having sex with him.

The female plaintiff's father said he hopes the decision will be a catalyst for change in the diocese. "To this day, I don't know how someone like Haggerty looks himself in the mirror every day knowing what he did," he said.