Woman sues Camden diocese over alleged abuse

Posted: August 22, 2012

Lisa Shanahan says she was molested at age 10 by a priest at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Hammonton and has kept quiet about it for decades, alone in her suffering.

She decided to break her silence after learning there were two victims before her.

Now 43, Shanahan has sued the Camden diocese, demanding it reveal why the now-defrocked priest, Thomas Harkins, was permitted to stay in ministry even after the church hierarchy learned of his alleged abuse and, she claims, sent him for therapy.

"They sacrificed me," says Shanahan, a business executive living in North Carolina.

Though the suit she filed in May is active, it appears vulnerable to dismissal as the diocese argues it was filed past the state's statute of limitations.

Also frustrating her efforts is a 2002 deal between the church and the state attorney general that was meant to end the church's secrecy on clergy abuse but that paradoxically, critics say, is facilitating secrecy.

Shanahan would be helped by legislation that would lift the statute of limitations for civil lawsuits brought by those sexually abused as children. The bill is scheduled to come up for a vote in the state Senate Monday. The church is fighting it.

"That would create a disastrous result," said Chuck Carella, an archdiocesan lawyer in Newark, noting that some dioceses in other states have gone bankrupt. "You're saddling the institution today for allegations from decades ago."

Shanahan seeks files she believes will show a cover-up by church higher-ups. Because she lives in North Carolina and the alleged abuse happened in New Jersey, her suit was filed in federal court. New Jersey law will apply, her lawyer said.

Harkins has not been criminally charged, though church officials over the years have acknowledged complaints against him beyond the criminal statute of limitations. Allegations of child sexual abuse from before 1996 cannot be prosecuted because the limits for bringing criminal charges were not lifted until that year.

Camden Diocese spokesman Peter Feuerherd said last week the church removed Harkins from ministry in 2002 because of the allegations and reported him to the Camden County prosecutor that same year and to the Atlantic County prosecutor in 2004.

Officials in the two counties said they could not confirm getting the complaints. Feuerherd said victims who reported abuse before 2002 were paid settlements after suing. The church has reported paying a total of $195,000.

While her lawsuit includes monetary claims, Shanahan said money isn't her objective; she wants to know how the diocese handled Harkins. According to her lawsuit, in 1978, before Harkins arrived at St. Anthony's, he was on a "leave of absence" in New Mexico. The suit alleges he had been sent to a center there that counseled pedophile priests.

To Shanahan, that suggests someone had complained about Harkins even before his alleged flurry of abuse at her church.

Church officials haven't disclosed where Harkins was in 1978. Feuerherd said only Harkins and church officials "now dead" knew the truth. Feuerherd said Harkins served at St. Anthony's from September 1979 until leaving for New Mexico in 1981. He said Harkins was sent there to minister to Native Americans.

Harkins went on leave yet again in January 1982, after the first alleged victim reported abuse. In 1984, he was assigned to St. Mary's in Cherry Hill.

Feuerherd said Harkins' history was "unusual" and "not normal."

Harkins is one of 133 New Jersey priests listed on a website maintained by bishop-accountability.org, a nonprofit that tracks priest abuse. The list identifies 4,300 disgraced priests across the nation.

Though Pennsylvania also has a strict statute of limitations, confidential church files regarding abuse there and at the Jersey Shore nonetheless have become public through years of investigation, grand jury reports, and criminal proceedings. Details of the Shore abuse came out only because Philadelphia priests were involved.

That's in stark contrast to the 2002 deal between the New Jersey attorney general and the New Jersey Catholic Conference, which represents bishops on public policy.

Under the pact, the church agreed to report to county prosecutors all allegations of sexual abuse of minors, no matter how long ago they happened. In return, prosecutors were instructed to send all cases to the attorney general for review before filing criminal charges or issuing subpoenas. The state also agreed that reports from diocesan officials would be kept "strictly confidential."

"This was done very much as a means to make sure allegations of abuse were reported and not covered up," said Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the New Jersey Attorney General's Office. Critics say that although prosecutors have looked at individual cases, no inquiry has delved deeply into the role of the church hierarchy.

Shanahan claims the diocese must have been aware of abuse allegations against Harkins by other victims before she was molested in the early 1980s.

In a settled lawsuit, the family of the first known victim alleged that a now-deceased priest had threatened "eternal damnation in hell" if the victim went to police.

When the diocese assigned Harkins to St. Anthony's, he taught Shanahan's catechism class and led Sunday church services for children.

Shanahan said that in 1980 and 1981, while in CCD class, Harkins slipped his hand beneath her clothes, sometimes in front of other children.

According to her lawsuit, she was molested between 10 and 15 times, once in Harkins' bedroom in the rectory. After molesting her, the lawsuit says, "he told her that she was a good girl and reassured her that everything was OK" with what he had done.

"Despite its knowledge of the risk Father Harkins posed to children, the diocese took no action against Father Harkins and continued to give him unfettered access to young girls," the suit alleges.

In response to the earlier allegations, the church acknowledged to an Inquirer reporter in 2005 that suspected abuse involving Harkins was not reported to police - as required by law.

That year, Bishop Joseph A. Galante, who was appointed in March 2004, criticized the diocese's handling of allegations against Harkins by the first two victims, saying, "It is indefensible that the complaint was not acted on appropriately."

The diocesan spokesman at the time, Andrew Walton, noted that Harkins "should not have been returned to ministry. Law enforcement should have been notified."

Harkins, 65, lives in Collingswood and works in security at Philadelphia International Airport as a baggage supervisor. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In 2004, as Shanahan was planning to baptize her children at Christ the King in Haddonfield, she contacted the diocese to make sure Harkins would not officiate.

She revealed the alleged abuse and was put in touch with a victims' advocate. She said the advocate told her Harkins had been removed and offered her therapy, but discouraged her from taking more action.

She said she learned of the previous allegations against Harkins in 2009 only through a news report, and realized the church could have prevented her abuse.

Shanahan said she turned down a settlement because she wanted to see Harkins' personnel files, which the diocese will not produce.

"I want to know how deep it went," she said. After suing, she told her parents of the abuse she had suffered.

"I could not believe it. I felt as though I let my daughter down, like I had not protected her," Shanahan's mother, Linda Syvertson, 66, of Atco, said.

A federal judge in Camden must decide whether Shanahan's claim is timely.

Under current state law, victims abused as children must file civil lawsuits no later than two years after they turn 18, or from the time they recognize the abuse. The bipartisan legislation would remove the limitations.

Shanahan also alleges fraud against the diocese for not disclosing the earlier abuse, an offense that in federal court has a seven-year statute of limitations from the time of discovery.

"A victim may be able to recall the abuse, but may not realize until years later that the psychological and emotional damage is the result of abuse. The damage is significant," said Sen. Joseph Vitale (D., Middlesex), the bill's primary sponsor. Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington) is cosponsoring it.

Church officials are fighting the legislation, Vitale said, because "they are petrified" of what will come out.

A spokesman for Gov. Christie wouldn't comment on the bill or the church-state pact.

Victim advocates want the agreement overturned.

"New Jersey handcuffed itself and it was a mistake," said Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. "I thought from the beginning the agreement was harmful."

Hamilton said the pact enabled law enforcement to avoid "responsibility to fully investigate child sex-abuse crimes." Even old allegations should be investigated because the state's racketeering law may be used to prosecute cover-ups, she said.

The agreement assumes church officials who may have orchestrated cover-ups would abide by an honor system, said Phillipsburg lawyer Gregory Gianforcaro, who has more than a dozen suits pending against the church.

"It sickens me what is going on here," he said.


Contact Barbara Boyer at 856-779-3838 or bboyer@phillynews.com.

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