Riverhead Parishioners Sued by Pastor
Priest Says He Was Defamed in E-Mails

By Mitchell Freedman
June 10, 2003

The Rev. Thomas Coby, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Riverhead, has filed a $1.25-million lawsuit against several current and former members of his parish, saying they defamed him by accusing him of lying about the reasons for the closing this month of the parish's elementary school.

The devil, it seems, was mostly in the e-mail messages.

Coby said he became the target of a malicious rumor campaign - most of it posted on the Internet - more than six months ago, when several parents decided he was responsible for the planned closing of the St. John the Evangelist Parish School.

The parents, all connected to a group called Save Our St. John's School, sent an e-mail message to Bishop William Murphy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, accusing Coby of lying to and misleading them about school finances. They also complained to the Suffolk district attorney's office.

Bob Clifford, a spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney's office, confirmed that letters and e-mail messagess were sent by the group, prompting two detective investigators to interview Coby in the spring, and to look at some financial records. "That's where we left it," Clifford said. "Technically, it's still an open review. But it's not a case. There's a big difference."

Coby's lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court, also charges that the group's Internet Web site has repeatedly accused him of "deceptive and dishonest" tactics. In mid-May, the Web site showed more than 8,000 hits, his lawyer said.

It was the sheer volume of allegations, Coby said, that made him decide to file the lawsuit. "It was six months of listening to all this nonsense," he said. "Riverhead never whispers."

Coby and his lawyer, Linda Margolin of Islandia, said the lawsuit was a personal action, not sanctioned by the diocese. "You don't lose your rights as a human being when you become a priest," he said.

Joanne Novarro, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said it neither sanctions nor opposes the lawsuit. "This is a lawsuit by an individual," she said.

Steven Eisman, the Lake Success attorney representing the five defendants, said that - even if the allegations were true - the proper response should have been to get an injunction to take down the Web site. "The idea that a pastor would sue his parishioners for money damages is beyond belief," Eisman said. "What does he want? Their houses?"

One of the people named in the lawsuit, Joseph Donnell of Calverton, said he had not yet been served. But last week, Donnell - in a press release for the group - said the prospect of being sued by his priest was devastating. "For someone we trusted in a pastoral role, this is beyond heartbreaking. ... I now know what it feels like to be the victim of the church's inability to address a very emotional and distressing situation," he said.

The other defendants named in the suit are the Web site, Mary Kay O'Shaughnessy, Robert Horn, Luciana Ferranti and Mary Allen.

Four years ago, the parochial school had an enrollment of 236 students. This year, enrollment is down to 96. Some parents blamed a 40 percent tuition increase two years ago for the falling enrollment.

But Coby said the tuition went up because the enrollment went down. He said that with St. Isadore's parochial school a mile away, it made no sense to operate them both.

"A disagreement over a decision turned into a personal attack on me," he said, adding that running the school has cost the parish $500,000 in the past three years.


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