The three men grew up on Long Island in devout Catholic families. They attended Catholic schools and were befriended by parish priests they say were revered by their parents and often were dinner guests in their homes.
The decades have passed: Today they are 42, 51 and 62. But when they were boys, those priests allegedly sexually abused them, putting their lives in turmoil and devastating family members who found out only years later.
Now, the Diocese of Rockville Centre has launched a compensation program that it hopes will help people who say they were victims of clergy sex abuse as children.
These three men are among 164 people who have filed complaints with the diocese and are eligible to apply for compensation under Phase One of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, according to officials administering the plan. A second phase will be for anyone who has not previously filed such a complaint.
In interviews, the men expressed differing views on the program, from gratitude that they finally may be able to close a horror-filled chapter of their lives to deep skepticism of the program as an attempt by the church to keep hidden the full truth of the scandal.
They all agree the church should give a public airing of its decades-long role in protecting pedophile priests and shielding bishops and others in the hierarchy who knew of the abuse and did not stop it.
“If they truly want forgiveness, they must admit to a full accounting of the conspiracy to cover up the crimes of the past,” said former West Hempstead resident David McGuire, 51, who said he was abused by a priest at St. Thomas the Apostle parish from 1980 to 1982. “They must make public the records of the abusers.”
No plans to release files
The Diocese of Rockville Centre does not plan to release any priest personnel files, partly because “many survivors understandably desire that their experiences of abuse remain private,” spokesman Sean Dolan said. “For this reason, the IRCP [the compensation program] has built-in measures that protect privacy. Neither the Diocese nor the administrators will discuss any matter presented.”
Dolan said, “While we understand that some survivors may be seeking something other than what the IRCP offers, we hope that they too will consider the program’s balanced approach towards respecting the privacy of survivors, while affording them the ability to have their experiences heard in a fair and just process.”
McGuire said the diocese could release the files with the names of the victims redacted to protect their privacy.
The priests who allegedly abused the three men whom Newsday recently interviewed were previously identified by Newsday in stories before and after a 2003 Suffolk County grand jury report on clergy sex abuse in the diocese.
That 181-page report, released after the church sex-abuse scandal first broke in Boston in 2002, detailed allegations of abuse of boys and girls against 23 priests, whose names were omitted and who were identified by letters, such as “Priest A,” “Priest B” and so on.
At the time, Newsday was able to match some of the priests to the letters. They included the Rev. Eugene Vollmer, “Priest D”; the Rev. Robert Huneke, “Priest M”; and Msgr. Charles “Bud” Ribaudo, “Priest O.”
The reconciliation and compensation program, announced in mid-October, will provide victims with financial compensation if they agree not to take legal action against the diocese in the future. It was modeled after programs launched over the past year in the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Bishop John Barres, in a statement issued when the program was announced, said while “we as a Church recognize that no amount of monetary compensation could ever erase or undo the grave harm suffered by survivors of child abuse,” the effort represents “a major commitment to the ongoing healing of survivors of acts of child sexual abuse committed by clergy.”
Former North Merrick resident Robert Ackermann, 42, who lives in Newport News, Virginia, responded positively to the move. He filed a complaint with the diocese in 2002.
The program, he said, is “a good step” and a welcome relief to years of waiting for some kind of resolution.
Ackermann said he was abused by Ribaudo in the mid-1980s while he was in the fourth through sixth grades at Sacred Heart School in North Merrick.
Ribaudo, a popular priest who was a major fund-raiser for the diocese, was suspended as a priest by the diocese in March 2002 and retired the same month. He moved to Naples, Florida, where he died last year at age 78.
“This is a way to start closure, not only for the victims of the abuse but I think also just for the church itself, just to close the door on this chapter and try to go forward,” Ackermann said.
The program is a “huge step in kind of relaying to the public, ‘Hey, we screwed up. This is what we did wrong,’ ” he said. “And to me, that’s been the biggest thing all along, is acknowledge what has been done.”
Statute of limitations issue
Few clergy sex-abuse cases in the diocese or statewide have gone to court, largely because of New York’s statute of limitations, one of the most restrictive in the country, according to Michael Dowd and Melanie Little, attorneys who have represented clergy sex-abuse victims on Long Island. The law requires a person who alleges sexual abuse as a minor to file suit within five years of reaching 18 — in other words, by age 23 — to be permitted to sue and seek financial compensation.
Advocates for clergy sex-abuse victims have lobbied Albany legislators for a decade to pass a Child Victims Act that temporarily would lift the statute of limitations and allow sex-abuse victims to sue the church — and thus provide a legal foundation to seek diocesan files about offending priests and the abuse.
This year, the legislation passed the Assembly but was not taken up by the Senate.
The Catholic Church has lobbied against the measure, saying it could nearly bankrupt the church.
McGuire’s viewpoint on the diocese’s compensation program is harsher than Ackermann’s. While he respects the right of victims to participate, he thinks it does not go far enough in exposing the abuse and cover-up.
McGuire said that Vollmer gave him beer and pornography in Vollmer’s rectory room during sleepovers at St. Thomas the Apostle parish in West Hempstead from 1980 to 1982, starting when he was 13. Once after a Christmas Eve Mass, Vollmer gave him some pornography as a “Christmas present,” said McGuire, a former altar boy at the parish.
“While I am spending nights over in the rectory, my mom is seeing it as a blessing,” McGuire said, because she had no idea about the abuse and she revered the clergy. McGuire said his relationship with the priest so confused him that he had Vollmer officiate at his wedding in 1989.
In 2002, shortly after The Boston Globe exposed clergy sexual abuse of minors and the pattern of the church’s cover-up in that archdiocese, McGuire said he filed a complaint with the Rockville Centre diocese and the Nassau County district attorney’s office. A detective interviewed him and others who alleged they had been abused by Vollmer, but the case was not pursued because of the statute of limitations, McGuire said.
Removed from priesthood
Vollmer’s ability to function as a priest, such as celebrating Mass or hearing confessions, was suspended that same year, and he was removed from the priesthood by Pope John Paul II in 2004. The Suffolk County grand jury report described him as a “serial child molester.”
He died in May 2016 at age 67 in North Miami, Florida, after suffering two massive strokes, said his sister, Ann Vollmer of Greencastle, Pennsylvania.
McGuire said the abuse by Vollmer later contributed to his getting thrown out of a Catholic high school, two suicide attempts, homelessness, depression, drug and alcohol addiction, compulsive sexual addiction, and other mental health problems.
The abuse “is something I’m going to be living the rest of my life with. . . . It’s a matter of principle for me at this point because I feel like by accepting this [money], I would be co-signing their sick behavior still. I’m allowing them to keep their secrets still,” said McGuire, now a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles.
Lifting the statute of limitations could unveil the extent of abuse in the church and in other sectors of society as well, McGuire said.
Ann Vollmer said she had planned to turn her brother in to authorities if the statute of limitations had been lifted.
“I feel very badly for the people that he did this to, because I always felt that he should never have been ordained, but there was nothing I could do to stop it,” she said.
The victims’ pain “will never go away. There’s no amount of money or anything else that can compensate them and say, ‘OK, it’s done, it’s over with, my head is clear, I can go on.’ They always have that nag in the back of their heads,” she said.
The diocese’s compensation program probably will cost Rockville Centre millions. Dowd said settlements accepted by his clients in the Archdiocese of New York’s program generally have ranged from the low-to-mid six figures, and he believes some in the Diocese of Brooklyn’s program could exceed $1 million.
He noted that those figures are far lower than what his clients have won in a handful of clergy sex-abuse cases that made it to court because they were within the statute of limitations.
In 2007, for instance, two of his clients won a total of $11.45 million in damages. They were a young man and woman who were repeatedly raped by youth minister Matthew Maiello at St. Raphael’s Roman Catholic Church parish in East Meadow as teenagers starting in the late 1990s. Maiello pleaded guilty in 2003 to raping and sodomizing four minors, including the two who sued. He served two years and four months in state prison.
Team to set financial offers
Individual financial offers for victims in the Rockville Centre plan will be determined by a team led by Kenneth R. Feinberg, the Washington, D.C., lawyer who is in charge of the funds in New York and Brooklyn and has led similar high-profile programs, including the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
The number of alleged victims who earlier filed complaints with the Diocese of Rockville Centre is higher than that in the Archdiocese of New York. Camille Biros, a business manager who works with Feinberg and is helping to administer all of the programs, said 146 people applied for compensation under the first phase of the Archdiocese of New York’s program.
Ackermann thinks the program makes financial sense for the diocese.
The church has “lost massive amounts of money over the years,” he said. “Not just in settlements. Just people not going to churches anymore. I think this [program] is one of the ways to try to make amends in New York and get people back in and get the coffers back up.
“As a business stance, I don’t think that’s a bad idea on their side,” said Ackermann, who works in restaurant management.
Ackermann’s parents, Joann and Frank Ackermann, said they want closure, too — their son’s abuse has been traumatic for the whole family.
Ribaudo should have “at least gone to court and faced up to what he had done and how he deceived us,” Joann Ackermann said. “He was a member of our family, he was loved by everyone, he officiated at the marriages of two of our children, he baptized lots of our grandchildren.”
“I think there is no gift that my son could receive that would ever make up for what has been done to him and what has been done to our family,” she said.
Beyond the money
John Salveson, 62, who said he was sexually abused by Huneke over a seven-year period starting in 1969, said he probably will participate in the compensation program. But he also wants the diocese to reveal everything in its files about the abuse and the cover-up by superiors.
“I don’t think it [the program] is a negative thing, but it leaves the impression that it is all about the money,” Salveson said.
At the time the abuse began, Salveson was a 13-year-old freshman at St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay and Huneke was a priest at St. Dominic parish. After Salveson was accepted to the University of Notre Dame in 1973, Huneke followed him there, landing a job at the university and continuing to abuse Salveson and others, Salveson wrote in an article published in 2003 in Notre Dame Magazine, an official university publication.
Salveson said he started to complain to the diocese about Huneke in February 1980 when he wrote a letter to then-Bishop John McGann and says he met with him that summer. Despite Salveson’s repeated written complaints to McGann and others, nothing happened to Huneke for the next nine years, Salveson said.
Finally, one Sunday morning in July 1989, Salveson, his father and his two brothers handed out an open letter about the abuse to parishioners after Masses at St. Patrick’s parish in Huntington, Huneke’s new parish. That same year, Huneke took a leave of absence, according to Biros.
Dolan, the spokesman for the diocese, did not directly address Salveson’s allegation, but said, “We pray that all survivors who are eligible to participate in the IRCP come forward and through participation find a measure of reconciliation and healing.”
Huneke went on to work as a guidance counselor at a Catholic high school in Atlanta, Salveson said. He died in 2002 at age 62.
Salveson, now a businessman in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, said he has suffered many of the ailments common to child sex-abuse victims, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“For me, reconciliation would involve the diocese acknowledging their outrageous behavior,” said Salveson, who testified before the Suffolk County grand jury. “Coming clean, telling the truth — that would be a good start.”
Salveson said he favors a kind of “truth commission,” similar to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, that would publicize the truth even if no jail sentences or financial compensation were involved.
“It would make the files public,” Salveson said. “That is more important to me. I would trade it in a heartbeat” instead of accepting the diocese’s money.
“The most horrible, damaging thing of this is the secrecy and the way they have been able to be protected and the way they have behaved so badly, with so few consequences,” he said.