CAMDEN — A Philadelphia man who alleges he was sexually abused at St. James Parish in Ventnor from 1996 to 2001 claims the Diocese of Camden and then-Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio did not do enough to protect him or the children who were abused after him, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.
The suit, filed on behalf of Justin Hoffman, 29, seeks damages and states the diocese demonstrated negligence, including failing to report abuse and protect parishioners from a “serial molester.” It also names Holy Trinity Parish in Margate, the “successor to St. James Parish,” the school for which was torn down in 2016.
Hoffman alleges the Rev. Brendan Sullivan abused him when he served as Sullivan’s altar boy as a student at St. James school. According to the lawsuit, the abuse increased in frequency and intensity over the five-year period and included indecent exposure, inappropriate fondling, groping and removing Hoffman’s clothes and underwear.
“I wasn’t in a position where I was making this conscious decision to hang out with this priest, this sex offender, every day,” Hoffman said Tuesday at a news conference in Cherry Hill. “He was like my best friend. It’s kind of embarrassing to say. … That’s not a healthy friendship. There isn’t a friendship between a 65- or 70-year-old priest and a 9-year-old boy.”
Mike Walsh, a spokesman for the diocese, said the first accusation against Sullivan was received in 2010. He was removed from ministry.
“As in all such cases, the Diocese will notify law-enforcement authorities of the accusation,” Walsh said, “and offer professional counseling and therapy to anyone who claims to have been abused.”
Sullivan served at St. James from 1987 to 2004. He was removed from the priesthood in 2010 in connection with another abuse allegation stemming from 1981, during his time at Assumption Church in Atco. The lawsuit states Sullivan acknowledged the incident before his death. Sullivan was later named in a list by the Diocese of Camden of clergy members who had credible allegations of abuse against them in February. DiMarzio, now bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, was bishop of the Diocese of Camden from 1999 to 2003.
Sullivan and Hoffman fell out of frequent contact before Hoffman’s junior year of high school at Chartertech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point, Hoffman said.
Attorney Gerald Williams said Hoffman’s lawsuit is the first since Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law Monday extending the statute of limitations for sexual abuse allegations from two years since realization of the abuse to seven years, or the age of 55, whichever comes first, plus a two-year window for victims blocked by the previous statute of limitations, effective Dec. 1.
Hoffman said he realized the extent of the abuse between 2016 and 2017.
“(Hoffman) told us that he wanted his name on the complaint that we filed yesterday for a specific purpose,” Williams said. “Because his lawsuit can be brought now, others under the new statute have to wait to bring claims in the court, to seek justice there. He wants other survivors to know that this can be done, that their voices can be heard and that they can seek remedies in court.”
Other children were present during some of the instances of alleged abuse, attorney David Cedar said.
The suit also says Sullivan engaged in a “calculated series of manipulations” that included taking Hoffman and other boys out on his boat, taking them swimming, taking Hoffman out to dinner and giving him random gifts of money.
The lawsuit states Hoffman experienced addiction and mental health struggles stemming from the abuse, and a loss of earning potential as a result. Hoffman said he’s been sober for one year and nine months. He believes Sullivan’s abuse played some role in his substance-abuse issues.
Hoffman said he began considering that what had happened to him was abuse after going to addiction treatment meetings and meeting with LGBT people and hearing their discussions of trauma.
“I found myself identifying with them more and more,” he said, “and I think that was right in the wake of the whole #MeToo movement.”
At the time of the alleged abuse, Hoffman was living in Ventnor, where his family still lives.
The lawsuit says Hoffman “suffered a severe disruption of his enjoyment of life, as well as his relationship with members of his family, fellow Catholics, and others.” He is no longer a practicing Catholic.
“I identify as an atheist,” Hoffman said. “And I think the best way to come to that conclusion is to have an understanding of how religion works.”
Hoffman, who spent two years in the Navy and now works as a chef in Philadelphia, said he remembers reading the news of Sullivan’s defrocking and attended his funeral. Sullivan died in 2011 at 76.
Sullivan graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1955 and was ordained in 1960, serving in 10 parishes in South Jersey.
Along with St. James, the other South Jersey churches he served in included Blessed Sacrament Church in Margate from 1965-75 and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church in Absecon from 1976-78.
After two years on the faculty of Camden Catholic High School, he served as vice principal of Holy Spirit High School in Absecon between 1964 and 1973, and as principal from 1973 to 1978.
But it was his time at St. James that Hoffman said has left him with issues that last to this day. He explained the blind spot children have in the presence of authority figures, which was compounded by the reverence the Catholic Church was shown in his family and community.
“When you’re with an authority figure when you’re young, you don’t know if something that they’re doing is right or wrong,” he said. “And I certainly shouldn’t have been expected to know.”