MINEOLA, N.Y. – A jury found the nation's sixth-largest Roman Catholic diocese and a church parish negligent Friday in a case involving a youth minister who repeatedly raped and sodomized teenagers in his care over several years.
The jury awarded the two victims a combined $11.4 million in damages in one of the rare civil cases to go to trial in the wake of the nationwide Catholic sex abuse scandal that erupted five years ago.
The jury found that the Diocese of Rockville Centre, one of its churches and a pastor were negligent in the hiring and retention of the youth minister who carried out the abuse. The jury cleared the defendants of being negligent in the supervision of the minister.
The six-person jury reached its decision after deliberating over eight days.
The plaintiffs' attorney, Michael Dowd, said the decision -- announced in a hushed Long Island courtroom -- sends a powerful message to the Catholic church. "The church can no longer be reckless in the safety of children," he said.
The defense said no decision has been made on whether to appeal.
The trial included graphic testimony by a female victim who told the jury that former youth minister Matthew Maiello seduced her and eventually had sex with her in a variety of locations on church property -- including church pews and the elementary school principal's office, as well as at their homes.
Maiello pleaded guilty to third-degree rape and sodomy in 2003 and served more than two years in prison, admitting he abused four children. But since Maiello did not contest any of the allegations against him, the real focus of the monthlong trial became St. Raphael's Church in East Meadow, its pastor, the Rev. Thomas Haggerty, and the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
The jury awarded the female victim about $5.5 million in damages, and a second male victim about $5.9 million.
The victims said that starting when they were 15, they were repeatedly molested by the Maiello, and that church officials failed to act when confronted by reports that the youth minister was acting inappropriately.
The victims, now 23, said the abuse lasted three years, from 1999 to 2002. The woman testified that Maiello took her virginity in a basement office in the church convent and eventually cajoled her into having sex with the boy in the youth ministry. Before long, Maiello was engaging in three-way sex with the teenagers, and videotaping other encounters.
"He would always tell me it was God's plan for us to be together," said the woman. "He controlled all of my thoughts -- he manipulated me."
During his closing argument, the plaintiffs' attorney, Michael Dowd, particularly blamed Haggerty, repeatedly pointing at the priest sitting in the courtroom gallery's front row.
"You gave (Maiello) the imprimatur of the church," Dowd bellowed.
But Brian Davey, a defense attorney representing the pastor, the parish and the diocese, insisted that Maiello alone was responsible for the sexual abuse.
"Matthew Maiello is a degenerate, is a deviant," Davey said. "He is 100 percent responsible."
Davey noted that testimony during the trial revealed that Maiello grew close with not only the female victim but her entire family. The relationship was so cozy that Maiello was a frequent visitor in her home, attended family parties, and on two occasions accompanied the victim and her family on vacations to Florida and Lake George, in upstate New York.
But Dowd questioned why Haggerty did not pursue more information after receiving a negative job recommendation from a youth minister at a church where Maiello previously worked. He also said Haggerty failed to check on Maiello's educational background and other qualifications for the $20,000-a-year youth ministry position.
"Who in God's name would let this person work with kids?" Dowd asked.
The case is one of several civil lawsuits to arise from allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. But unlike this case, very few went to trial and most were instead settled out of court.
The U.S. Conference of Bishops estimates abuse-related costs from lawsuits have exceeded $1.5 billion. On Long Island, a grand jury found nearly two dozen cases of abuse going back decades in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, with 1.3 million Catholics in 134 parishes.
A Suffolk County grand jury report in early 2003 cited abuse cases involving 23 priests in the Rockville Centre diocese over several decades. The allegations included altar boys being groped and sodomized during church trips, and many other instances when children were left alone with their abusers.
Prosecutors said they were prevented from pursuing criminal charges because statutes of limitations had expired long ago. Civil lawsuits were dismissed, or never filed, for the same reason, according to victim advocates.