A former high-ranking Roman Catholic priest in the Diocese of Rockville Centre who was at the center of controversy over an alleged cover-up of priest sex abuse has been cleared by the Vatican of a claim he sexually molested a teenage boy decades ago, the diocese said Friday.
Msgr. Alan Placa, a former vice chancellor in the diocese in charge of investigating priest sex-abuse complaints, was found not guilty at a canonical trial of allegations lodged in June 2002 by Richard Tollner that he sexually abused Tollner in 1975. At the time, Placa was teaching at the now-defunct St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary in Uniondale.
“We hope that everyone in the diocese will recognize that Msgr. Placa is a priest in good standing,” Bishop William Murphy, spiritual head of Long Island’s estimated 1.5 million Roman Catholics, said in a statement.
Placa had been suspended from functioning as a priest for seven years. He has never been charged by civil authorities with a crime. He has repeatedly denied Tollner’s accusations.
“I am astonished,” said Tollner, 50, a loan officer who now lives in the Albany area. “The church has chosen to protect the priest over the victims.”
The Vatican made the ruling after a long investigation that included a trial before a church tribunal in the Diocese of Albany. The case was also reviewed by Rome’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which along with investigating sex abuse cases promotes and safeguards doctrine on the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world.
With his priestly faculties now restored, Placa can again wear his collar in public and celebrate Mass and other sacraments. Moreover, the diocese said in a statement that the Vatican has instructed it “to do what we can to restore his good name.”
Placa, 65, has been living for about a decade at St. Aloysius parish in Great Neck, said diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan. He will continue to live there as a “retired priest in good standing,” the diocese said in a statement. However, Placa and Murphy mutually agreed Placa will not be given a diocesan assignment.
“It is my hope and prayer that this decision will bring closure and healing,” Murphy said. “We also ask people of good will to join us in praying for those who were, in fact, victims of sexual abuse.”
The Vatican ruling is final and cannot be appealed, the diocese said.
Placa declined to comment, Dolan said. Placa is a childhood friend of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and went to work for his Giuliani Partners security consulting firm in Manhattan after he was suspended.
Tim Eschausse, Long Island coordinator of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, criticized the Vatican ruling, saying that Placa had been cleared based on “a technicality.” He contended that canon law forbids people to file child sex abuse cases after they turn 28.
William Donohue, of the Catholic League in Manhattan, said, “Clearly he’s been vindicated in the eyes of ecclesiastical circles. But what good does that do? At the end of the day there are vicious professional victims groups who are so delirious . . . they will still probably try to cast aspersions on him.”
He added: “It’s very difficult to get your reputation back.”
Rev. Msgr. James F. Pereda, the judicial vicar for the Rockville Centre diocese, said Placa’s case was sent in 2002 by Bishop Murphy to the Vatican. It then sent it to the three-judge church panel in Albany.
That tribunal determined Placa was not guilty. The Vatican reviewed the ruling and agreed, Pereda said.
Starting in the mid-1980s, Placa helped set diocesan policy on alleged sex abuse. He served as the diocese’s legal counsel and personally handled complaints from victims.
In February 2003, a Suffolk grand jury released a report alleging sexual abuse by two dozen Long Island priests. Tollner, who testified before the grand jury, later said Placa was referred to in the report as Priest F. The grand jury report contained testimony from Tollner and two other people who said they were abused by Priest F.
Some victims said he placed troubled priests back in jobs where they had contact with children, and discouraged victims from pursuing legal action against the diocese. Placa denied that in an interview in 2002, saying he had to balance victims’ concerns against the rights of priests.
“I have one set of critics saying I’ve been involved in a cover-up and have not reported things, and that is absolutely untrue,” he said then. “On the other side, I have priests criticizing me because I’ve been overly aggressive . . . because I don’t go to bat for the priest.”
With Chau Lam