A local news station recently reported that a priest who had formerly worked in Palm Beach County had been added to the list of those “credibly accused” of sexual misconduct. The priest, Father John Sutton, was added to the list by the Paterson Diocese in New Jersey. Sutton’s victim claims he was abused in the 1970s. After 1979, Sutton took a long leave of absence, returning to work in the early 2000s in Palm Beach County, and he served in Boca Raton as well as Lake Worth. He passed away eight months into his tenure in Palm Beach County. The Palm Beach Diocese stated that it was never made aware of any previous allegations of abuse. The victim came forward with the sexual abuse allegations in 2005.
According to a spokesman for the organization Together We Heal, it is important for the names of priests accused of sexual abuse to be announced publicly—even if they’ve passed away—as it opens a door for additional victims to come forward. There are often others who are still alive who covered up the abuse, he added.
If you’ve been sexually abused by a Palm Beach priest, even if the abuse happened many years ago, speak with a sexual abuse attorney or child sexual assault lawyer who can help you understand your legal options for seeking justice and accountability in the courts.
Timeline of Sexual Abuse Allegations and the Palm Beach Diocese
Allegations of sexual abuse by clergy of the Catholic Church is not a new issue. However, since 2002, work has been done to shed light on these cases. Here is a brief timeline, starting in 2002, of what has been done about the issue:
- 2002: U.S. bishops established a review board to investigate sexual abuse allegations occurring within the Catholic Church, and asked John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City to survey all 195 dioceses for 50 years of statistics regarding the number of priests and victims and the costs surrounding each scandal. Additionally, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops implemented the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, requiring background checks on those working with children, safe environment trainings, zero tolerance policies, and victim’s assistance. In November of that year, USA Today conducted its own study of the 10 largest dioceses. The results of that study produced an estimation of 900 allegedly abusive priests nationwide, based on media reports, court documents, and church statements.
- 2003: The New York Times conducted a study, in which it counted 1,205 allegedly sexually abusive priests nationwide over five decades of media and church accounts. An Associated Press study revealed that 179 of 1,341 accused priests were dead. Local news station WPTV reported that, in 2003, the Palm Beach Diocese confirmed that it had removed nine priests because of abuse allegations but never released their names.
- 2004: A report from the Palm Beach Post noted that there were six accused priests and six alleged victims in the Palm Beach Diocese, which includes the Catholic churches in Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, and Okeechobee Counties. There was no cost provided for these scandals. The report stated that, by comparison, Palm Beach Diocese had very few allegations to report.
- 2008: It was reported that $2 billion in large settlements and awards and another $500 million in smaller settlements had been paid in lawsuits against Catholic church personnel accused of sexual abuse between 2003-2008. Payouts were made to 3,547 survivors—about 21 percent of the survivors who had come forward.
- 2017: The Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection began hosting monthly rosaries for healing survivors of sexual abuse.
- 2018: There were 26 allegations made against church personnel by current minors across the nation, including 12 males and 14 females. Three were substantiated, as of June 30. Seven were unsubstantiated, three were unable to be proven, six were still under investigation, two were referred to religious orders. Two involved unknown clerics, and three were deemed to be incidents of boundary violations, not sexual abuse.
- 2019: When asked by a news investigative team to reveal the names of accused priests, the Diocese of Palm Beach responded to the second emailed request for the information with the statement: “No response.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released its 16th annual audit report on implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The report noted that the number of sexual abuse allegations increased in 2018, when compared to those made in 2017. The allegations were mostly historical.
As part of the establishment of a review board, the U.S. bishops also began compiling a list of credible accusations against priests. On the list for the Palm Beach Diocese are:
- Rocco D’Angelo, who was accused of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old boy while he was a priest at St. Mark in Boynton Beach in the 1960s. The case was settled in 1998.
- Charles Cassetta, who was accused of assaulting a female student while he was teaching at Cardinal Newman High. The assault took place during 1971-72. Cassetta subsequently left the priesthood.
- J. Keith Symons, who served as bishop from 1990-1998 before resigning and confessing to molesting five boys 25 years earlier. At the time, church leaders reportedly stated that they would be surprised if there weren’t more victims of Symons’ abuse.
- Philip Rigney, who said mass at St. Peter in Jupiter from 1991 until his retirement in 2001, was accused of molesting two generations of boys in the same family in New Jersey while he was a priest there.
- Anthony Failla, who was accused of sexually molesting a boy in New York in the 1970s. He denied the allegations and celebrated masses in Boca Raton in 2001-02. He was later removed from the diocese.
- Peter Duvelsdorf, who was accused of sexually assaulting two boys in Long Island before being transferred to the Palm Beach Diocese. In 1997, he was removed from the church after being charged with exposing himself at a park in St. Lucie.
- William Romero was accused of 10 years of misconduct involving a boy in Port St. Lucie that he met in 1982. Multiple lawsuits were filed against him and he has subsequently left the priesthood.
- William White, who taught at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach from 1994-2002, before resigning due to allegations that he had abused a New York student in the 1970s.
- Matthew Fitzgerald, who—in 2000—was accused of fondling a 15-year-old boy while at Ascension Catholic Church in Boca Raton in 1991 and 1992. He was later defrocked.
- Frank Flynn, who was accused in 2002 of abusing a 12-year-old girl in Palm Beach Gardens in the 1980s. He was later removed from the ministry and moved to Ireland.
- Francis Maloney, who was accused of trying to seduce a teenage boy who was working in his home in Port St. Lucie while at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. A lawsuit was filed. Maloney was reportedly forced to retire from his former post at St. Luke Catholic Church at Palm Springs for having sex with a man.
- Anthony O’Connell, who served as Bishop from 1999 to 2002, resigned from his post after admitting to sexual contact with a teen 25 years earlier. Several men subsequently filed lawsuits against him. According to an op-ed from U.S. Catholic, he spent his final years in a monastery and died in 2012.
- An unnamed priest who, in 2002, was accused of sexually abusing a boy a decade earlier.
- Edwin Collins, who was accused in 2008 of assaulting a teenage boy. Collins later retired.
Additional names of alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse provided by WPTV in February 2019, include:
- Elias Guimaraes, who was arrested in 2002 while a priest with the Palm Beach Diocese, after he arrived to have a sexual encounter with a detective that he believed to be a 14-year-old boy that he had been having sexually explicit conversations with on the Internet. During those conversations, he had bragged about having sex with a 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old boy. He later pleaded guilty to the charges against him.
- Joseph Palimattom, in 2015, was arrested for showing child porn to a 14-year-old boy. Palimattom pleaded guilty and was later deported to his home country of India. He stated that he had previously admitted to abusing a minor in India before coming to the U.S. and that Indian church officials knew about this abuse.
- Monsignor Thomas Benestad, who—in 2018—was named as one of 300 Pennsylvania priests accused of sexual abuse in a grand jury report, relocated to Boca Raton in 2007 after an extended medical leave and assisted at Ascension Catholic Church for two years. He had reportedly passed all background checks and the Palm Beach Diocese was not informed of the allegations against him until 2011, at which time he was ordered to refrain from any type of Catholic ministry.
A Cover-Up? The Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Palm Beach Case
In April 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the defamation and libel case filed against the Palm Beach Diocese by priest John Gallagher. Gallagher claimed that the diocese defamed him after he made public comments regarding the attempt to cover up allegations of another priest showing child pornography to a 14-year-old boy.
Gallagher alleged that the Diocese refuted his statements about an alleged cover-up both in press statements as well as statements to church-goers. The diocese also passed him over for the job as pastor and reassigned him to another parish. Gallagher refused the reassignment, and remains a priest in Palm Beach Diocese, although he has been on sick leave. Last year, a panel of judges from the Third District Court of Appeal ruled against Gallagher under a legal doctrine called “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.” The Diocese, which expressed pleasure in the Supreme Courts’ refusal to hear the case, stated that its actions were not a cover-up, but rather a correction of an employee.
Ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, as explained by Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review, is a longstanding common law doctrine which holds that if a case would require a civil court to decide a matter of religious doctrine, the court should either refuse to hear the case or defer it to relevant religious hierarchy. The rationale for the doctrine is that courts cannot decide matters of religious doctrine and should not make what amounts to religious pronouncements.
The Process for Reporting Abuse With the Palm Beach Diocese
According to Palm Beach Diocese, a person receiving an allegation about sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult by church personnel should immediately report the allegation, including priests who receive allegations made in a spiritual counseling context in spite of laws that exempt ministers from being mandated reporters. Exceptions include when a priest receives such information in the confidentiality of the confessional. This is the process as to how reports should be made:
- The person receiving the allegation should provide an oral report to 1-800-96ABUSE (1-800-962-2873), which is the Florida Department of Children and Families abuse hotline.
- An oral report of the allegation should also be made to the Chancellor of the Diocese of Palm Beach.
- The diocesan attorney reports the allegation to the state attorney.
- The person receiving the allegation reports it to the appropriate immediate authority, such as the school principal or pastor.
- Within 48 hours, the person receiving the allegation makes a written report of it for the Department of Children and Families.
Let Us Help You
If you’ve been the victim of sexual abuse by church personnel within the Palm Beach Diocese, regardless of how long ago that abuse occurred, you may be wondering who to turn to and what your legal options are. Let us help you by providing a safe and compassionate place in which to share your situation and have your questions answered by a qualified attorney who understands the issues surrounding sexual abuse and the Catholic faith.
With offices across both Florida coasts, you can easily reach Dolman Law Group and Sibley Dolman at 833-552-7274 or by contacting us online.
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