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Church ignored warning about priest, who abused again, lawsuit says

John Salveson, 61, who now lives in Pennsylvania,

John Salveson, 61, who now lives in Pennsylvania, says he was abused as a teen by a priest at a church in Oyster Bay. Credit: Corey Perrine

John Salveson says he warned the Roman Catholic Church nearly 40 years ago about the priest who abused him at a parish on Long Island, but no one listened.

That same priest, transferred to Florida, went on to abuse a child at his new parish, a lawsuit filed on behalf of the second victim alleges.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Jacksonville against the dioceses of Rockville Centre and St. Petersburg, alleges the Rev. Robert Huneke abused Mark Cattell, then 9, in Tampa in 1981 after the priest was transferred there. The abuse occurred even though Salveson repeatedly warned church officials in writing that Huneke had sexually abused him for years beginning in 1969 while the priest served at St. Dominic Catholic Church in Oyster Bay, according to the lawsuit and Salveson.

“It’s heartbreaking that this happened to this kid, and it could have been avoided,” Salveson, 61, who now lives in Pennsylvania, said Wednesday. “This is the playbook they follow. They ship these guys out of state or into a different place.”

The lawsuit on behalf of Cattell, now 45, essentially argues that because the Rockville Centre diocese sent a priest who was known to have abused boys to Florida, it also is responsible for the abuse he committed there. The suit seeks unspecified damages.

The lawsuit states that Huneke, who died in 2002, sexually abused Cattell at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa beginning in 1981.

Starting in 1980, Salveson wrote letters to John McGann, then bishop of Rockville Centre, saying that Huneke sexually abused him for seven years beginning in 1969 when Salveson was 13, according to the lawsuit and Salveson. Salveson later wrote similar letters to William Larkin, then bishop of St. Petersburg, after he learned Huneke was transferred there, the lawsuit says.

Both McGann and Larkin are dead.

In a statement Wednesday, the Diocese of St. Petersburg said Huneke was transferred there in 1979 from Rockville Centre with a letter of recommendation from McGann and that St. Petersburg “was unaware of any prior misconduct with minors.”

The diocese said Huneke was removed from ministry in the St. Petersburg diocese in 1982 after it learned of an allegation that he had abused a child while in the Rockville Centre diocese. At that time, St. Petersburg had received no complaints about Huneke from his time in Florida, the statement said. Huneke returned to the Rockville Centre diocese, where he worked as a priest until 1989, serving some of that time at the Church of St. Aidan in Williston Park and the Church of St. Patrick in Huntington.

“The Diocese of St. Petersburg stands with victims of sexual abuse and we recognize the courage it requires to speak out about their betrayal and hurt,” the statement said. “Our hearts continue to go out to the victims of priests and others who have betrayed their trust.”

The diocese also said it had contacted law enforcement about the case and that it generally offers counseling and other support to victims.

Sean Dolan, a spokesman for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, said, “The matter will addressed in the course of the litigation." The diocese declined to comment further.

The lawsuit names both dioceses and their current bishops, John Barres of Rockville Centre and Gregory L. Parkes of St. Petersburg.

In a story in 2003, Newsday named Huneke as the "Priest M" who was part of a Suffolk County grand jury report that year detailing allegations of abuse of boys and girls against 23 priests stretching back decades in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

The Florida lawsuit, filed by Cattell’s attorney, Jeff Herman of Boca Raton, in U.S. District Court, states that the Rockville Centre diocese “acted with complete and utter disregard for the health, safety and well-being of the children who would encounter Father Huneke through church functions and activities.”

The lawsuit states that Huneke sexually abused Cattell starting in 1981 while greeting people after Masses, grabbing and fondling Cattell. That led to later incidents in which Huneke abused him, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit cites a letter Salveson wrote to McGann in February 1980, informing the bishop Huneke had abused him. McGann eventually wrote back in August 1980, stating that he had spoken with Huneke, who assured the bishop he had been receiving counseling and stated “that this matter had not been a problem for over a period of approximately two years.” Salveson confirmed writing the letters, which were publicly available on websites dedicated to exposing sex abuse among clergy.

McGann took no action against Huneke, the lawsuit states.

Alarmed, Salveson wrote back in September 1980, asking McGann to do something about Huneke’s placement in Florida, the lawsuit says. McGann eventually wrote back in April 1981, saying he had “neither the right nor the responsibility to bring this matter to the attention of the Diocese in which Father [Huneke] is serving,” according to a letter quoted in the lawsuit.

Salveson then wrote to Larkin in St. Petersburg in August 1981, informing that bishop that Huneke had abused him. Larkin wrote back saying he would look into whether Huneke is getting counseling, but in the end “did nothing” to address the situation, the lawsuit states.

Herman on Wednesday called the case “another heartbreaking example of the Catholic Church protecting pedophile priests instead of children.”

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