The Diocese of Rockville Centre said Thursday it was not responsible for a priest accused in a lawsuit of sexually abusing a girl in Hampton Bays, and its child protection measures are "admirable models" for all those entrusted with youths' care.
But a lawyer for the family and a national sex abuse survivors group blasted the diocese's position. The group, SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called on Bishop William Murphy to visit the parish where the abuse allegedly took place and seek out other possible victims along with witnesses and whistleblowers.
The family of the girl, now 8, on Monday sued the diocese and the priest's order, the Vincentians, alleging that both failed to protect the girl from the Rev. Augusto Cortez.
The whereabouts of the priest, 52, is unknown. Law enforcement officials have said they believe he is in his native Guatemala.
Cortez was part of the diocese's Hispanic Apostolate and worked at St. Rosalie parish in Hampton Bays, where the family were parishioners, according to the lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court in Queens. He had a decadelong friendship with the family.
At the time of the alleged abuse, Cortez was on probation after pleading guilty in 2009 to forcibly touching a 12-year-old girl in Brooklyn in a separate case, the lawsuit states. Court papers say the abuse of the Hampton Bays girl occurred a number of times from 2009 to 2014. She was born in 2007.
Sean Dolan, a spokesman for the diocese, acknowledged Thursday that Cortez worked in the parish in Hampton Bays in 2003 and 2004.
But he said it was not until 2008 -- four years after Cortez finished his work with the diocese -- that the Vincentian community suspended him from working as a priest, engaging in public ministry and being alone with children following the forcible-touching incident in Brooklyn that year.
Cortez was placed on probation by the New York City Department of Probation for six years starting in 2009, "because the incident at hand took place in New York City, not on Long Island," Dolan said in a statement.
"Since 2004, when he completed his assignment, the Diocese of Rockville Centre has had no responsibility or capability to monitor and supervise this man who was and is subject to his superiors, the Vincentians," Dolan said. "He was in the custody of the New York City Department of Probation, not the Diocese of Rockville Centre, when the incident in Hampton Bays took place."
Starting in 2009, Cortez was living in an apartment on Staten Island that was paid for by his order, according to the court papers. The lawsuit says he traveled to Hampton Bays occasionally to visit the family.
Michael Dowd, the family's Manhattan-based attorney, said Thursday the diocese shares responsibility for not protecting the girl. He said she and her family were and still are parishioners at St. Rosalie, which is part of the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
He also said that another Vincentian priest who was part of the diocese's Hispanic Apostolate and was working at St. Rosalie told the family after Cortez's arrest in 2008 that it was still safe for their children to be around Cortez. That priest, who was not named in the lawsuit, brushed off the incident in Brooklyn with Cortez as an "accident," according to the court papers.
The Vincentians have denied the other priest ever made such a statement.
Dolan also said, "The church, in general, and the diocese, in particular, have long had child protection measures in place that can serve as admirable models for all private and public institutions entrusted with the care of children and youth."
Dowd responded, "Maybe one of the things they should be adding to their model for children protection . . . is that the priests of the diocese when they learn of the arrests of a priest who's worked there, be required to tell the truth when inquiries are made concerning whether this Cortez was safe."
SNAP spokesman David Clohessy accused Murphy of "making up excuses" and said he "has a moral responsibility to help law enforcement catch and convict" Cortez.
Dolan, in response, said Clohessy "will attempt to latch on to any tragic case without regard for the facts and use it to besmirch the church and its hierarchy and to use it as a means to promote his own cause and group."