MINEOLA, N.Y. – Several civil lawsuits have arisen from allegations of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church, but few have gone to trial. Most were settled out of court.
In what victims' lawyers called a powerful message to the church, a jury on Friday found the nation's sixth-largest Catholic diocese and a church parish negligent 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.
"Over 99 percent of the cases that have been brought since 2002 have settled in the quiet of lawyers' offices, and none of these cases have seen the light of day," said Paul Mones, an attorney for the victims. "This case has really shown exactly how these pedophiles operate, exactly how the church, unfortunately, has responded."
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.
One of the victims' lawyers, Michael Dowd, said the decision — announced in a hushed Long Island courtroom — showed that "the church can no longer be reckless in the safety of children."
A spokesman for the diocese, Sean Dolan, declined to discuss the verdict immediately. He said church officials hadn't decided whether to appeal.
The trial included graphic testimony from 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.
The Associated Press generally does not name victims of sexual abuse.
Maiello, who now lives in Connecticut, pleaded guilty to third-degree rape and sodomy in 2003, admitting he abused four children. He served more than two years in prison.
Since Maiello did not contest any of the allegations against him, the focus of the monthlong civil 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 two, now 23, said Maiello repeatedly molested them from 1999 to 2002, starting when they were 15. They said church officials failed to act when confronted by reports that the youth minister was acting inappropriately.
After the trial, the woman hailed the verdict as a vindication for her and other abuse victims.
"The reason for seeking justice in a civil trial was to ensure that the truth finally came out and that this might prevent the abuse from happening to children everywhere," she said.
Brian Davey, an attorney representing the pastor, the parish and the diocese, insisted that Maiello alone was responsible for the sexual abuse.
But Dowd questioned why Haggerty did not pursue more information after receiving a negative job recommendation for Maiello from a youth minister at a church at which Maiello had previously worked. Dowd also said Haggerty failed to check on Maiello's educational background and other qualifications for the $20,000-a-year youth ministry position.
Prosecutors said they were prevented from pursuing criminal charges because statutes of limitations had expired long ago.
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