Abuse claims put Catholic Church in New York City under scrutiny

Allegations raise questions about Cardinal Timothy Dolan's handling of clergy abuse scandal in United States.

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    One of New York City's oldest Catholic Church sites sits prominently among the skyscrapers of Manhattan's financial district [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
    One of New York City's oldest Catholic Church sites sits prominently among the skyscrapers of Manhattan's financial district [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

    Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect identities.

    Gabriel* was a young Catholic student when Father John Paddack arrived at his school in 1984. The priest taught at Incarnation School, said mass at its parish and was involved with the altar boy programme. Before long, Gabriel says Paddack began calling him into a secluded place in the church, where the boy was instructed to confess his sins.

    That is where Gabriel said Paddack molested him - about twice a week for two years, starting when he was between the ages of 11 and 12 years old.

    Gabriel was familiar with the Catholic ritual of confession, but he said Paddack did things differently: There was no barrier separating them. In fact, he said, Paddack sat close to him, placing one hand behind his neck and the other on his inner thigh. 

    "How do you get alone with someone?" he said. "Confession. You don't have a crowd. It's a one on one thing."

    Gabriel kept the trauma of this abuse mostly to himself for decades. He was angry and ashamed. When Al Jazeera's current affairs programme Fault Lines interviewed him in June, he asked to use a pseudonym, fearing retribution from the Catholic Church hierarchy.

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    This year, Gabriel reported Paddack to local prosecutors and officials at the Archdiocese of New York. He said he came forward for one main reason: Paddack was still in ministry at Notre Dame Parish in Upper Manhattan - working in close proximity to children.

    This summer, the 47-year-old resident of Upper Manhattan's Washington Heights neighbourhood found out that he was not alone. Fault Lines interviewed four other men who described abuse at the hands of Paddack during some of the most vulnerable times of their adolescence.

    Taken together, their allegations detail a pattern of abuse by Paddack during confession and guidance counselling sessions in Catholic schools across New York City in the 1980s, 1990s and into the 2000s.

    "As they're coming forward telling similar stories of patterned behaviour, you're saying, we've got a serial offender here," said lawyer Jeff Anderson, whose law firm filed several lawsuits pertaining to Paddack in August.

    "It's an isolation and it's an access at a very vulnerable moment where he's able to place himself in close physical proximity without oversight," said Anderson's colleague, lawyer Mike Reck.

    In interviews with Fault Lines, Paddack denied the claims, calling them "pure lies", and saying that his accusers are "looking for money".

    The revelations come during a year of deepening scandal inside the Catholic Church, sparking investigations by attorneys general in more than a dozen states, and prompting state legislators to pass laws extending the statute of limitations to allow victims of child sex crimes more time to make claims in court - laws that the Catholic Church had opposed for decades.

    In New York City, the allegations against Paddack bring new scrutiny on Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the leader of 2.6 million Catholics across three New York City boroughs and the Hudson Valley. Once a rumoured candidate for pope, Dolan has tried to get out ahead of the clergy abuse scandal.

    "I heard that what you want is accountability, transparency, and action to combat this evil," said Dolan in a September 2018 video announcing an independent review of his Archdiocese's handling of clergy abuse allegations.

    In late September, the retired federal judge commissioned by Dolan to conduct the review announced that the Archdiocese had "responded appropriately to abuse complaints, and is committed to supporting victims/survivors of abuse". 

    Timothy Dolan
    Cardinal Timothy Dolan greets visitors to Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City in June. Fault Lines met him there to ask why a priest accused of abuse by several men had remained in active ministry for months - and in one case, years after a complaint had been made [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

    But Dolan's handling of the allegations against Paddack tells a different story. For four months after Paddack's accusers spoke out, Dolan kept Paddack in ministry. Archdiocese policies on sexual misconduct state that accused priests shall be suspended while allegations against them are investigated, if the Archdiocese "concludes that there is reasonable cause to believe the allegation". The Archdiocese did not respond when asked why Paddack remained in ministry after he was accused.

    This year's allegations against Paddack were not the first. It appears that parishioners at his church were not informed of a 2012 accusation and subsequent investigation that initially cleared the priest - raising questions about the cardinal's willingness to respond transparently to clergy abuse allegations.

    In April, Dolan published a list of 120 clergy members who had been credibly accused of abusing minors. However, most of them are deceased. Dolan had indicated that the clergy abuse scandal was largely a problem of the past and pointed to the fact that no active priests were on the list.

    Paddack was not on Dolan's list. The priest stayed in ministry until July, when a series of public allegations led the Archdiocese to suspend him. It had been seven years since the Archdiocese first received complaints against the priest.

    The first complaint

    Hector* was in his junior year at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx when he met Paddack. It was approximately 1994 and Hector was 17. Paddack was a guidance counsellor at the all-boys Catholic school, and Hector said he needed someone to talk to about the trauma from being sexually abused as a five-year-old boy.

    "I said it to the wrong person, and he just took advantage," Hector told Fault Lines.

    Hector said that during their counselling session, Paddack sat facing the closed door of his office. When Hector began to describe his memories of being abused, he said Paddack placed a hand on the inside of his leg - massaging near Hector's genitals.

    When Hector pushed his chair backwards to leave, he said Paddack grabbed the handles of the chair to stop him.

    "I was scared. He asked me if I wanted to talk about it. I just shook my head because I couldn't speak," he said.

    Hector said he broke free from the priest's grasp and ran to the boys' toilet, where he curled up in a stall and sobbed.

    Hector's mother told Fault Lines that her son told her about the abuse shortly after he finished high school. Hector's girlfriend said he recounted the same incident to her in 2006.

    And in 2012, Hector took his story of abuse to the District Attorney in the Bronx - as well as the Archdiocese of New York.

    It was the first known complaint lodged against Paddack.

    Archdiocese officials said they investigated Hector's allegation and found it to be unsubstantiated.

    Paddack was not suspended during this initial investigation, an apparent breach of Archdiocese policies aimed at protecting children and holding priests accountable for abuses.

    There is also no indication that Paddack's parishioners were made aware of the allegation against him at the time. Archdiocese officials declined to answer questions about their handling of Hector's claim.

    News reports from the time indicate that Paddack was briefly reassigned to a different parish, before returning to his post at Notre Dame Parish. He would remain in ministry - working in proximity to children - until July of this year.

    In the intervening years, Dolan helped Paddack rise through the ranks. In 2015, Paddack was named dean of West Manhattan, an elite leadership position in the Archdiocese held by a handful of priests.

    During this time, Paddack worked with young people at Notre Dame, and also counselled young people in the community - making visits to a fifth Grade classroom at a Catholic school in Morningside Heights as late as March of 2018.

    And as late as February of 2018, he worked as a religious adviser for Catholic students at Columbia University. Officials there told Fault Lines that Paddack is no longer affiliated with the school. 

    'They never go home'

    Before becoming a priest at the age of 36, Paddack earned a graduate degree in counselling. A 1988 profile in a New Jersey newspaper detailed his work with vulnerable people across New York City: at a crisis centre for homeless children; with prisoners at Rikers Island jail; and among the ill on a children's hospital ward.

    He could possibly be doing this to other kids right now and he's around other kids still. I couldn't let it go.

    Jorge*, former altar boy at Incarnation Parish

    As a newly ordained priest, he took his first post at Incarnation Parish in New York City's working-class Latino neighbourhood of Washington Heights. Paddack told the Asbury Park Press that he had built the parish's altar boy programme from five boys up to 115.

    "And they never go home," Paddack said.

    Jorge* was one of those altar boys at Incarnation Parish. He told Fault Lines that Paddack abused him during confession for years, beginning in 1987.

    Recalling the memories was difficult.

    "My heartbeat [is] starting to accelerate just remembering all this crap," said Jorge in a phone interview, describing how Paddack used a stethoscope to perform medical exams on him - an allegation now made by several accusers.

    "He would like tell me to take off my shirt and then check my heart rate and tell me to breathe while he's just, with his hand right on my thigh, right by my crotch," he said.

    Paddack denied these claims.

    Jorge recounted how Paddack was revered by many families in Washington Heights in those days - including his own deeply religious parents.

    Jorge said his family held Paddack on a pedestal. "I felt ashamed. Now it's turned from being ashamed to freaking pissed," he said. "He could possibly be doing this to other kids right now and he's around other kids still. I couldn't let it go."

    To this day, Jorge has not told his family about the abuse.

    In August, a new state law opened a one-year window of time for alleged victims of child sex abuse to file claims regardless of their age.

    Jorge filed an anonymous claim detailing Paddack's abuse in a lawsuit against the Archdiocese. 

    I don't know what he was doing, but he [Father John Paddack] was the closest line to God that I had at that time ... He'd finish with me and say 'Tuck in your shirt, pull up your tie, get to class.'

    Rafael Mendoza, former student at Cardinal Hayes High School

    Going public

    Rafael Mendoza made his allegations against Paddack publicly in March, standing in front of Notre Dame Parish and recounting details of the abuse he said he faced as a 15-year-old freshman at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx in 1996. 

    Mendoza said he was having suicidal thoughts at the time, and went to see Paddack for weekly guidance counselling sessions. After a few visits, Mendoza said that the priest told him to undress, and initiated medical exams using a stethoscope.

    "I don't know what he was doing, but he was the closest line to God that I had at that time," said Mendoza. "He'd finish with me and say 'Tuck in your shirt, pull up your tie, get to class.'"

    Paddack denied Mendoza's claims, telling the New York Daily News that he believed Cardinal Dolan supported him.

    "Right now, I know I do [have the support of the Archdiocese]," Paddack told the paper. "I even spoke to the Cardinal."

    For four months after Mendoza went public, Paddack remained in ministry - an apparent violation of the Archdiocese's child protection policies.

    Then, another accuser went public.

    Sexual abuse survivor
    Joseph Caramanno prays at a Catholic church in Staten Island. In June, the 34-year-old went public with his claim that he had been abused by a Catholic priest named John Paddack [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

    In June, Joseph Caramanno also stood before the media and told his own story of abuse at the hands of Paddack.

    "I didn't think I would be able to do this," said Caramanno, a 34-year-old high school teacher from Staten Island. "But when I found out that after now eight of us have come forward, and he's still in ministry in Manhattan, something further had to be done."

    Caramanno told Fault Lines that Paddack abused him during his junior year at St Joseph by the Sea High School in Staten Island in late 2001.

    Caramanno had been suicidal, missing weeks of class during a hospital stay. Caramanno's father told Fault Lines that when his son returned to school, Paddack said he would hold the boy's medication for him in his office.

    If he struggled to focus during class, Caramanno was told that he could take refuge in Paddack's office.

    Today he is piecing together the memories of those encounters with the priest.

    "The primary thing I remember is him touching my leg, rubbing up and down my leg," said Caramanno. "That was the thing that, that was not supposed to be happening."

    After many years of blocking out the memories, Caramanno told his own students during a class discussion about the #MeToo movement in 2017 about the abuse that he had faced at their age.

    After Caramanno went public in late June, Fault Lines approached Dolan after mass at St Patrick's Cathedral to ask why Paddack had remained in ministry for so long. The scene is featured in In Bad Faith, an episode of Fault Lines airing this week.

    "Are you willing to hang a priest because of a press conference?" Dolan replied. "It's all being investigated, so drop it."

    A week later, Paddack was quietly removed from his post at Notre Dame Parish. In a letter to his parishioners, Paddack wrote that he had consulted with Dolan and decided to "step away" from ministry during an internal Church investigation.

    In a written statement, the Archdiocese revealed that Paddack had been suspended.

    It remains unclear what restrictions Paddack will face. In fact, Fault Lines found Paddack on the premises of Notre Dame Parish a month after his suspension supposedly began.

    "Basically, I'm not here," Paddack said, adding that he was only at the church to pick up his mail.

    Archdiocese officials declined to respond to a list of written questions about Paddack's case or its standard practices for handling clergy abuse allegations.

    For the men who have spoken out, they say news of Paddack's suspension made the pain of recounting these traumatic experiences worth it. Their goal had been to prevent the priest from working in proximity to young people.

    Gabriel, who said he was abused during confession for years, said it was time for the priest to own up to his own sins.

    "Has he asked his God for forgiveness?" he said.

    In Bad Faith: Child Sex Abuse and the Catholic Church

    Fault Lines

    In Bad Faith: Child Sex Abuse and the Catholic Church

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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