Theodore McCarrick — the now-defrocked, one-time top Roman Catholic cleric in New Jersey — is among the defendants named in dozens of lawsuits filed this week after lawmakers eased the state’s legal bar on claims of past sexual abuse by clergy members and others in a position of trust.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of 37-year-old John Bellocchio alleges that he was assaulted by McCarrick, then the archbishop of the Newark Archdiocese, in the vestry of Hackensack’s St. Francis of Assisi Church in the mid-1990s, when he was a 14-year-old altar server.
The lawsuit not only accuses a cleric of misconduct but alleges that the church engaged in a coverup — in this case allowing a high-profile prelate to ultimately rise to the rank of cardinal before his precipitous fall from grace last year.
“In this case, reports are made about McCarrick’s predatory conduct in the late 80s, again in the 90s,” said Jeff Anderson, Bellocchio’s attorney. “We also know that once those reports are made concerning somebody of McCarrick’s stature, that that goes immediately to Rome. And it’s that silence, and that safe harbor, and that continuation of him in a position of prominence that allowed him to continue his predation of seminarians and youth and John Bellacchio.”
In May, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law that had near-unanimous support in the Legislature extending the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases, opening up a two-year windows as of Dec. 1 for the pursuit of many decades-old claims that had been previously been time barred.
Other claims of sexual abuse finally felled McCarrick. Pope Benedict sanctioned him in 2008, and Francis defrocked him this past February, based on allegations of sexually abusing minors in the 1970s that were found to be credible by the church itself.
Bellocchio’s suit names McCarrick and the Archdiocese of Newark, which he led for 15 years. But he blames the entire Catholic hierarchy for failing to defend its children.
“Because he never would’ve been able to do the things he did, he never would’ve been able to rise up the ranks the way he did, to have an impact on the worldwide Catholic Church the way he did, without their complicity, without their consent — implied or otherwise,” Bellocchio said.
“I want there to be real, effective change from the top down,” he added.
McCarrick, 89, currently lives in a Kansas monastery. Attorneys say they’ll call on him to testify and follow evidence wherever it leads.
“This lawsuit is designed to excavate the secrets of all the diocese’s records pertaining to all the reports made by every single priest,” Anderson said.
The Archdiocese of Newark did not comment on the lawsuits Monday.
Also among the new lawsuits was one filed by two sisters who blame church officials for the abuse they say they suffered at the hands of the late Father Augustine Giella, a priest who was transferred to their parish in Pennsylvania by the Archdiocese in Newark despite multiple complaints of child sexual abuse.
“We want to know how a known predator priest like Giella landed on our Pennsylvania doorstep from New Jersey,” said Patty Fortney-Julius.
Her sister, Lara, said she met Giella when she was 10, and alleges he abused numerous children, including four Fortney daughters, sometimes bringing them to a house at the Jersey Shore.
“I introduced this monster to my entire family,” she said. “And it shattered us.”
Both sisters want church officials to be held accountable.
“For me personally, this day represents taking my power back,” Patty said. “Giella is dead. But the institutions that covered up his abuse are alive and still operating status quo. They need to face me and answer for my abuse.”
Her lawyer said he anticipated a battle.
“In order to get a complete picture, we need to see all the documents,” said attorney Ben Andreozzi, who’s representing the Fortneys. “So inevitably, I believe that we’re going to be at war with the archdiocese regarding what types of documents, how broad the scope of the document production should be and over what period of time it should be.”
The Diocese of Harrisburg settled with two of the daughters. All of them praised the law that’s reopened the window for lawsuits in New Jersey.
“I hope the news that victims can begin filing their cases under this new law spreads far and wide, and we hold the perpetrators and institutions accountable everywhere we can,” said state Sen. Joe Vitale, the Democrat who chairs the Health Committee and sponsored the measure.
The state’s five Catholic dioceses opened a victim compensation program back in June — and as of late last month it had reportedly paid $4.7 million on more than 200 claims. The program is overseen by Kenneth R. Feinberg, known for his role with the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, who along with Camille S. Biros is now administering similar compensation programs for dioceses in New York and Pennsylvania.
Those who accept an award offered by the administrators must first agree in writing not to sue.
At the same time, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is pursuing a separate investigation into allegations of abuse in the Catholic Church.