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N.J. priest skeptical of sex charges

(ran CI edition)

A priest who is a popular commentator on church issues speculated recently that abortion rights advocates or gay-rights activists are behind the class-action lawsuit filed against the Roman Catholic Church last week in U.S. District Court here.

Monsignor Salvatore Adamo, seasoned religious commentator, writer and Camden diocesan priest, said he believes that discontent with the church's "strong condemnation of homosexual behavior" and its anti-abortion stand may have spawned what he termed "ludicrous" charges in the just-disclosed civil suit. The suit, brought under the federal racketeering statutes, alleges fraud and conspiracy by Catholic leaders to conceal sexual assaults by two priests.

"I'm Silician and suspicious by nature," said Adamo, who is well known across Southern New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania for his columns on religion in the Camden Courier-Post and the Philadelphia Daily News. "But I think that somewhere in the background (of this suit) is a homosexual or a pro-choice advocate.

"I look at this case as part of the continuing process to cripple the Catholic Church. . . . If they could besmirch the priesthood, they'll have succeeded to a large degree," said Adamo, who went on to list a number of acts by gay activists in New York City, which he said manifest hatred toward the church.

The suit is the first in the nation to allege fraud and conspiracy by church officials under federal and state anti-racketeering laws. Known as the RICO statutes, these laws have previously been invoked to prosecute organized crime figures.

"If the RICO charge is vindicated in court, the church could lose its tax exemption," Adamo told journalists attending a press conference this week at the Camden Diocesan Center at which Bishop James T. McHugh denied charges that church officials covered up a child sex abuse ring led by two priests. Adamo's remarks were not part of the bishop's news conference but were given afterward.

"Why let these charges wait 20 years? What justice is there in that? What justice is there in a man torn from his job" by such charges? "It's all past history," Adamo said.

The monsignor was referring to the voluntary leave of absence requested May 14 by the Rev. Joseph F. McGarvey of Audubon, N.J., one of two priests alleged to have conspired to create a "sex ring of children" and to have taken the children out of state and used them for sexual pleasure.

The three plaintiffs and their parents were members of St. Mary Magdalene parish in Millville, N.J., where some of the abuses are alleged to have happened between 1965 and late 1972. They have filed suit for unspecified damages against the Camden diocese, its bishop, four priests, as well as the U.S. Catholic Conference and bishops in Vermont and Rhode Island.

The second priest named in the suit as a sexual abuser of the three male plaintiffs is the Rev. William C. O'Connell, of Providence, R.I., who was suspended in 1985, when he was arrested and later convicted of the sexual abuse of a child, a crime for which he served one year in jail.

Adamo, who is a few years older than McGarvey, 68, has known the accused priests for more than 20 years. The two, along with other diocesan priests, have made annual retreats at the Jersey shore for many years, Adamo said.

He characterized McGarvey as "a gentle, kindly priest," but added that "it's possible he changed." He further questioned why another priest, the Rev. Gary Hayes of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Owensboro, Ky., waited 20 years to file such a suit.

Adamo said he suspected the motive was "vengeance against the Camden diocese for not having accepted" Hayes as a candidate for ordination. Earlier in the press conference, McHugh said Hayes' application to become a priest of the diocese was rejected because of his "academic record" and that Camden helped to find another diocese for Hayes.

Adamo said that sex abuse charges against clergy "don't hurt the church" when they are raised a week or a month after an alleged incident and can be dealt with immediately. "But why would a man sit on a situation for 20 years and only raise it now?"

This question, Adamo said, is the basis of all his suspicions concerning the civil suit. The priest said he could not speculate whether Hayes would have been listened to if he had raised these charges 20 years ago, but if he had brought them up "10, even 15 years ago, I believe he would have gotten a good and fair hearing."

Hayes and the other plaintiffs are members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) _ a two-year-old support group whose headquarters are in Chicago. SNAP has invited each of the U.S. Catholic bishops to meet with eight victims of clergy abuse this week when the prelates hold their semi-annual meeting in New Orleans.

SNAP officials said they have reserved a room at the meeting and put each bishop's name on a chair. "We want to see how many will turn up," said SNAP leader Laura Barrett.