$1.5M settles claims against Lower Hudson Valley priests

By Jorge Fitz-Gibbon (The Journal News)
May 23, 2017

The Archdiocese of New York paid out more than $1.5 million through a victim compensation program to settle sexual abuse claims filed against six former Catholic priests from the Hudson Valley.

The cases date as far back as the 1970s and involve defrocked priests who include the former president of Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains and onetime pastors at churches throughout Westchester, Rockland, Dutchess and Putnam counties.

The claims against them come from seven men who were abused by the priests as children and filed claims against them through the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, receiving individual settlements between $150,000 and $350,000.

“I think that the suburbs are a particularly troublesome area because it’s more diffused with these large parishes that were able to kind of hide multiple perpetrators over multiple time periods," said J. Michael Reck, an attorney for the seven men, whose identities will remain confidential.

"People have referred to it sometimes as the geographic solution, and the solution being if a priest offends in one parish he can be moved a couple of miles away in another parish where the community is unaware of his history," Reck said. "That makes a suburban community particularly at risk.”

The revelation of the settlements, which have typically been kept secret by the Archdiocese, comes as the July 31st deadline approaches to file new claims.

Phase one of the program was announced by Cardinal Timothy Dolan in October and set a deadline of Jan. 31 for alleged victims of sexual abuse to file claims. The second phase of the program began accepting claims on March 31.

Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, said the program keeps the identities of both victims and priests confidential, and it does not reveal the settlement amounts paid for claims that are confirmed. It provides victims with a means of financial compensation when they have no other legal recourse.

“The individuals (victims) are allowed," Zwilling said. "If John Smith comes in, he goes through the program, he is allowed to say whatever he wants about it to whomever he wants."

"He could have a press conference, he could say I just got this amount of money and this is what happened and this is why," he said. "He can talk until he’s blue in the face. But we are not going to be the ones releasing the information. We promised that to the participants in the program.”

But based on information released by Reck, the six priests cited by his clients are:

John O'Keefe, ordained in 1972 and served as president of Stepinac High School from 1992-2004. Also served at St. Margaret of Antioch in Pearl River. Removed from the priesthood, or "laicized," in 2016.

Francis Stinner, ordained in 1968. Served at St. John and St. Mary Church in Chappaqua, St. Joseph's Church in Bronxville, and John F. Kennedy High School in Somers from 1981-1989. Laicized in 2005.

Gennaro "Jerry" Gentile, ordained in 1971. Served at St. Eugene Church in Yonkers, Immaculate Conception and Assumption Church in Tuckahoe, Holy Name of Mary Church in Croton-on-Hudson, St. Mary and of St. Joseph Church in Poughkeepsie, St. Mary's Church in Wappingers Falls, and St. Denis Church and St. Denis-St. Columba School in Hopewell Junciton. He was laicized in 2005.

Peter Kihm, ordained in 1981. Served at St. Paul and St. Ann Church in Nyack, St. Ann Church in Ossining, Church of St. Mary, Mother of the Church in Fishkill, Church of the Good Shepherd in Rhinebeck, St. Joseph's Church in Rhinecliff, and three locations in Poughkeepsie: Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. John the Baptist churches, and at Our Lady of Lourdes High School. Laicized in 2016.

Ralph LaBelle, ordained in 1978. Originally assigned to Staten Island, served at Sacred Heart Church in Patterson from 1999-2002 before he was laicized in 2005. LaBelle is the only fallen priest among the six with two claims against him.

Richard Gorman, ordained in 1982. Spent most of his tenure in Manhattan, but served at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains 1987-1990. Gorman was suspended by the Archdiocese in 2016.

The victims compensation program is run by attorney Kenneth Feinberg, and it includes a panel that considers and makes determinations on claims filed against priests.

In New York, the program is the only option for most victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests to seek compensation. The statute of limitations in New York states that victims of childhood sexual abuse cannot file legal claims for damages after age 23.

The law has not changed despite a concerted effort by victims rights advocates.

Reck, the attorney for the seven local victims, said there are drawbacks to the program, which allows the Archdiocese to retain confidentiality and withhold records that would typically have to be released in a civil lawsuit.

He said his clients — who received between $150,000 and $350,000 each in individual settlements — decided to reveal details of their cases and settlements to "shed some light" on the cases.

“The Archdiocese has not yet chosen to release the names and the amounts of claims and the different locations of the abuse for these priests," Reck said. "So, what our clients chose to do was to, since the Archdiocese was not going to do it, to put those names out there because we believe that it is imperative that the public know that these priests had such a long history in the Archdiocese."

"It's in Manhattan, in the Bronx, in the Hudson Valley, and there may still be survivors who are suffering in silence," he said. "They may not even know that there’s a program that’s safe and is available to them.”