Clergy abuse victim: “This shadow of pain and shame”
PHOTO BY ADAM ANIK
By ERIN ROLL
It is not your fault.
That is what Danielle Polemeni wants survivors of childhood sexual abuse to know.
Polemeni’s family belonged to St. Cassian in Upper Montclair in the 1980s. The church was the first assignment for Rev. Michael “Mitch” Walters, who had been ordained in 1981.
Walters was one of 63 New Jersey priests accused of sexual assault and named on a list released by the Archdiocese of Newark last Wednesday, Feb. 13, and one of six on the list who served in Montclair churches.
Polemeni says Walters molested her between 1982 and 1984, when she was a young girl.
Walters was removed from ministry in 2016 over allegations of child abuse. At the time, he was assigned to Our Lady of Sorrows Church.
The release of the list comes months after the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office launched an investigation into sexual abuse allegations within the Catholic dioceses in New Jersey September 2018.
In a letter posted on Wednesday, Feb. 13, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the Archbishop of Newark, apologized and asked for forgiveness. He said the publishing of the list is an initial step in restoring trust in the church leadership.
“The revelations of clergy sexual abuse of minors throughout this past year have provoked feelings of shock, anger, shame and deep sorrow throughout our Catholic community. Victims, their families and the faithful are rightfully outraged over the abuses perpetrated against minors. Additionally, the failure of church leadership to immediately remove suspected abusers from ministry is particularly reprehensible,” Tobin said in the letter.
The list resulted from a review of archdiocesan records going back to 1940. All of the names had been previously reported to law enforcement agencies, according to Tobin.
It does not specify when the abuse in each case was alleged to have occurred. However, it indicates that none of the mentioned cases involve any active litigation.
In addition to Walters, Montclair-area clergy members on the list were:
• James A. Carey, ordained in 1936, was assigned to Immaculate Conception Church, now part of St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish.
• Dennis Cocozza, ordained in 1975, was a pastor at St. Cassian.
• Alan Guglielmo, who was ordained in 1968, was a chaplain at Mountainside Hospital.
• John Nickas, who was ordained in 1966, was assigned to St. Peter Claver Church early on in his ministry.
• Robert Svec, ordained in 1954, was the pastor at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, now part of St. Teresa of Calcutta.
Walters and Guglielmo are still living, according to the list, and have been removed from active ministry, and the other four have since died.
Nickas, Svec and Walters were alleged to have “multiple” victims, according to the list.
‘I was kind of made to believe it was my fault’
According to media reports, Walters was the subject of six lawsuits involving allegations of abuse at St. Cassian and one other church he was assigned to. Five of those suits, including one filed by Polemeni, were settled in January, and a sixth is still in the courts.
Polemeni tried to tell her mother what happened. “I was ignored. I was kind of made to believe that it was my fault,” Polemeni said.
Walters was a presence in the Polemeni family’s life as she grew up. “Which was something I had to learn to deal with up until adulthood,” Polemeni said. She ended up moving away from northern New Jersey when she became an adult.
Today, Polemeni lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she works as a teacher.
Polemeni has since forgiven her mother. She added that for Catholics of her mother’s generation, the idea of a priest abusing a child was hard to process.
Her family continued to be active in St. Cassian’s life up until her parents passed away. Walters actually presided over her mother’s funeral. But her siblings have accepted her story of what happened as truth, and that is reassuring for her.
In the wake of the Pennsylvania investigation, Polemeni expected that similar news would come out in New Jersey. She also knew that the lists were going to be lengthy.
“Whenever I think about this, there are always waves of shame that follow, because I’d been led to believe that it was my fault.” Once those feelings pass, she said, then she is able to think about justice.
It was vindicating, she said, to see Walters’ name on the list and that he had been removed from ministry.
She said she and her family have many happy memories of parish life at St. Cassian. But, she said, “there’s this shadow of pain and shame.”
In 2015, several alleged victims of Walters, now adults, began coming forward.
Polemeni decided to speak out about what had happened to her, she said, because she wanted other victims to know that what happened to them was not their fault.
She encouraged anyone who had not yet come forward to reach out to the prosecutor’s office and the Victim’s Compensation Fund for assistance.
The fund will allow those sexually abused as minors by clergy to seek compensation as an alternative to litigation with a significantly lower level of proof and corroboration than required in a court of law.
All compensation paid will come from church funds. No public money will be used to pay eligible claims.
“It’s never too late,” she said.
Spirit of openness
The lists from all five of New Jersey’s dioceses — Newark, Paterson, Trenton, Camden and Metuchen — contain a total of 188 clergy.
“While this is a positive first step toward transparency and accountability, I hope this spirit of openness continues during the course of our ongoing investigation, and in response to our requests for records and information,” Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in a statement released Feb. 13.
The investigation by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office began one month after the results of an investigation were released in August 2018 stating that in Pennsylvania more than 1,000 children had been abused by 300 priests.
The church has hired two administrators – Kenneth R. Feinberg and Camille S. Biros – for the Catholic Dioceses in New York and Pennsylvania. They have administered compensation programs as the Penn State sexual abuse claims, the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund and the BP Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Fund.
In 2018, New Jersey’s five Catholic dioceses paid a combined $50 million to settle legal cases brought by victims of sexual abuse.
Mitchell Garabedian is an attorney whose Boston law firm has represented several New Jersey survivors, including Polemeni, of sexual abuse by clergy. “One has to be skeptical of the criteria used” in determining the list, Garabedian said.
“History has taught us that the Archdiocese of Newark and the Catholic Church cannot self-police,” he said, adding there needs to be an independent investigation.
As an example, Garabedian said that the list only includes accused priests within the diocese, but not priests affiliated with orders such as the Jesuits and the Benedictines.
Garabedian’s firm has overseen six legal cases involving Walters. Five of them involved St. Cassian, he said, and the sixth involved another parish where Walters served.
“Since the Catholic Church is determining the number of credibly accused priests who are on the list, we’re probably seeing the tip of the iceberg with regards to a lengthy, accurate list,” Garabedian said.
Anyone who is aware of any sexual misconduct by a member of the clergy is urged to call the archdiocese’s victim assistance coordinator at 201-407-3256.
The attorney general’s office has also established a clergy abuse hotline: 855-363-6548.