Sex Abuse Lawsuit against Ex-LI Priest, RVC Diocese Upheld

By Peter Franceschina
Newsday [Long Island NY]
April 24, 2003,0,173902.story?coll=ny-linews-headlines

A Palm Beach County judge on Tuesday threw out a sexual abuse lawsuit filed against the Diocese of Palm Beach, but he allowed the alleged victim to go forward with his claims against a former Long Island priest.

The suit alleged that the Diocese of Rockville Centre in Long Island and the Diocese of Palm Beach both were negligent in their supervision of the Rev. Matthew Fitzgerald, who served at St. Brigid's in Westbury and St. Matthew's in Dix Hills before transferring to South Florida in 1989.

There was a string of complaints against Fitzgerald involving allegations of sexual misconduct with boys and young men in Long Island and Florida. Fitzgerald, 59, denies any wrongdoing. His rights to serve as a priest were revoked last year.

The alleged victim in the suit was 20 years old when he says Fitzgerald fondled him 13 years ago. At the time, Fitzgerald was serving at the diocese's mother church, St. Ignatius Loyola Cathedral in Palm Beach Gardens.

Fort Lauderdale attorney Russell Adler, who represents the man, argued that Fitzgerald was a danger and that diocesan officials in Rockville Centre knew it.

"They shipped him down to Palm Beach," Adler said, adding that local diocese officials should have known about past allegations against Fitzgerald.

Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Winikoff called the allegations a "very serious matter," but he found that the negligence claims against the two dioceses were outside the statute of limitations and dismissed them. Florida's time limit for filing such negligence claims generally is four years.

Winikoff said he had no power to extend the statute of limitations in the case, saying it was a matter for state legislators.

Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach, sponsored a bill that would open up a two-year window for victims of childhood sexual abuse to file suits against institutions even if the statute of limitations had expired, but the measure has not made it out of committee.

West Palm Beach attorney C. Brooks Ricca, who represented the Diocese of Palm Beach, said the judge followed the law correctly.

"No one is trying to get out of anything, but we have to follow the law," he said.

Miami attorney Douglas Jeffrey, who represented the Diocese of Rockville Centre, declined to comment other than to say he was pleased with the ruling. Fitzgerald's Fort Lauderdale attorney, Stephen Muffler, would not comment. He argued that the claims against Fitzgerald also should be dismissed under the statute of limitations.

The judge rejected that argument for now, but it could be raised later. The suit says the alleged victim repressed his memory of the fondling, and Adler contends that suspended the statute of limitations.

Reached at his Pompano Beach apartment, Fitzgerald denied that he inappropriately touched the young man.

"I never did a thing to him," he said.

In New York, two lawsuits seeking more than $1 billion in damages were filed earlier this month against the Diocese of Rockville Centre and 17 of its priests, including Fitzgerald, on behalf of 34 alleged victims. Although the claims are outside New York's statute of limitations, the lawyers said they hope to get around that with allegations the diocese fraudulently concealed wrongdoing.

One of the suits alleges that Fitzgerald is identified as "Priest B" in a scathing grand jury report released in January by Long Island prosecutors. [See link to report, at top of this message.]

The report, which did not identify abusive priests by name, says Priest B fondled boys in the church sacristy -- the room where priests prepare for services -- and in the gym, and that diocese officials merely moved the priest from parish to parish when the boys' families complained. The report says Priest B requested a transfer in 1989 to a diocese in a warmer climate for medical reasons and that the officials in his new diocese were not told of his past.

Last April, a Diocese of Palm Beach official sent an e-mail to local priests explaining why Fitzgerald no longer would be allowed to function as a priest.

In the Diocese of Palm Beach, there were four allegations of misconduct with adults, and Rockville Centre officials admitted Fitzgerald faced similar allegations there, according to the e-mail.

The Diocese of Palm Beach forced him into retirement in 2000 but allowed him to work in a limited capacity for the Catholic charity Food for the Poor in Deerfield Beach. His priestly rights were taken away last April after he allegedly tried to say a public Mass and recruit people for a pilgrimage.

Last month, a Long Island priest gave a deposition in an abuse suit in which he said Rockville Centre church officials ignored his complaints about Fitzgerald's behavior with boys. The Rev. Edward Seagriff said at one point he pulled Fitzgerald off a boy who was yelling for Fitzgerald to leave him alone.

Fitzgerald said the allegations were false.

"I will take them on in court because that is not true, either. That priest lied under oath," Fitzgerald said. "There was never an occasion when he had to pull me off a guy or chase me to my room."


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