TRENTON – Five former altar boys who say a priest sexually abused them in the 1970s and 1980s have reached a settlement with the Catholic Church for more than $1 million, their lawyers announced Tuesday.
In confirming the settlement, the Diocese of Trenton said it found allegations against the priest to be credible and called for other victims to speak out -- a reflection of the church's resolve to avoid the appearance of trying to cover up abuse and a reminder that the child sex abuse scandal that has rocked the church for three decades is ongoing.
The five victims, who are now middle-aged, say they were molested from ages 11 to 16 by the Rev. Ronald Becker, who died in 2009. The boys were altar servers at the Incarnation Church in Ewing, N.J.
One of the boys was molested about 150 times, and some of the abuse occurred during trips with the priest to Washington, D.C., and other locations, lawyers say.
"He would tell them it was a physical act that would show the love of God," said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has represented hundreds of clients accusing priests of abuse, including the five in New Jersey.
Otis Roberts, a 45-year-old plant supervisor now living in Pennsylvania, said he was 11 when Becker started molesting him. Roberts said he has few friends and a marked inability to trust people. He thanked his 11-year-old son for giving him the support he needed to come forward.
"I've often wondered why I am the way I am," said Roberts, his voice quivering and hands shaking as he read from a slip of yellow paper. "Never very happy, never really been in love."
The Associated Press doesn't typically name victims of sexual assault, but Roberts has come forward publicly in hopes of encouraging others to speak out about abuse.
Roberts said he doesn't consider himself a Catholic anymore, and that he was most hurt that the church refused to grant his request for an apology. He said his own sense of guilt stems from the fact that he knew the other four boys and didn't say anything sooner.
"I believe my interaction with Becker was before them, and I didn't speak up," Roberts said at a news conference in a funeral home parking lot across the street from the diocesan headquarters.
The diocese confirmed that a settlement was reached in June and said each victim will receive $200,000, plus an additional $25,000 to cover therapy costs incurred over the next two years.
Diocese spokeswoman Rayanne Bennett said in a statement that the first complaint against Becker emerged in 1989, and that while he was not charged with a crime, the church removed him from the ministry and sent him for medical treatment. When he was released, he was given a desk job with no interaction with children.
In 2002, the church passed a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse, and Becker was defrocked.
Five years later, his niece accused him of abusing her more than 20 years earlier, and Becker was arrested and indicted but died before he could stand trial. The church later settled with the niece for more than $300,000.
"The question remains: Where were the supervisors?" said Garabedian, the attorney. "There's no telling how many children were molested by Father Becker."
While the diocese acknowledged that the allegations had been credible and noted that the church's abuse hotline is published regularly on its website, its newspaper and in parish bulletins, it statement didn't mention remorse or offer an apology for what the five boys endured.
"No amount of money can restore the shattered faith and stolen childhoods of these wounded men," said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
In New Jersey, a statute of limitations prevents victims from suing more than two years after they realize that they suffered damages from the abuse. Attorney Gregory Gianforcaro, who also represented the five men in this case, noted that no such statute exists for murder charges.
"This is slow murder," Gianforcaro said, referring to abuse by clergy.
State lawmakers have moved to eliminate the time limit altogether and to allow victims to sue others who were aware of the abuse and didn't try to stop it. A bill to lift the time restraints was pushed through the Senate Judiciary Committee in December, but it has lingered in both chambers of the Legislature ever since.
Correction: In an Aug. 16 story about the Diocese of Trenton reaching a settlement with five former altar boys who claimed sexual abuse by a priest, The Associated Press incorrectly reported the disciplinary action taken. The Rev. Ronald Becker was barred from public ministry and wearing clothing associated with the priesthood, but was not defrocked.