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Priest abuse fund excludes some victims

Diocese of Rockville Centre requires a victim to be a minor at time of the abuse, the alleged abuser to be a diocesan priest and documentation of the alleged misconduct.

Harold Siering was a seventh-grade student at St. Joseph School in Babylon when he said he was molested by a Franciscan brother.  But Siering doesn't qualify for a victims compensation program set up by the diocese  because his alleged attacker belonged to a religious order.  The program requires a victim to be a minor at time of the abuse, the alleged abuser to be a diocesan priest and documentation of the alleged misconduct. Siering  told Newsday recently that he sees his exclusion “a huge injustice.”   (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

For weeks after Suzanne Gorman’s 16-year-old brother died in 1980, her parish priest comforted her in the church rectory.

One night, he suggested they meet in his quarters because the meeting rooms were taken. There, upstairs at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church in Lindenhurst, Gorman said the Rev. Thaddeus J. Semla raped her. A month later, she said, Semla raped her again — under the guise that he wanted to apologize for the first attack. She had just turned 21.

In the mid-1970s, Harold Siering was a seventh-grade student at St. Joseph School in Babylon when Franciscan Brother Finian Magee started molesting him, Siering said. The abuse went on for years, he said, in Magee’s office, his residence next door and at the Siering home.

Both Siering and Gorman say they are still haunted by their abusers, both who died decades ago. And both are undergoing treatment paid for by the Church: the Diocese of Rockville Centre for Gorman and the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn for Siering.

But neither qualifies for a victims compensation program set up by the diocese — Gorman because she was an adult and Siering because his alleged attacker belonged to a religious order. The program requires a victim to be a minor at time of the abuse, the alleged abuser to be a diocesan priest and documentation of the alleged misconduct.

Some 30 applicants to the program did not meet the requirements — two dozen because their alleged attackers weren’t diocesan priests and six because they were not minors at the time of the alleged abuse, according to the program's administrators

“It should be justice for all and not for some,” said Gorman, 60, who lives in Clearwater, Florida. “It wasn’t just little boys who were being raped. It was women, too.”

Siering, 54, of Massapequa Park, also sees his exclusion as what he calls “a huge injustice,” especially because his alleged abuser — though he belonged to the Franciscan order — taught in a diocesan grammar school.

“The diocese staffed these schools with Franciscan brothers. They were responsible,” Siering said. “My motivation is just to see justice and let the other victims decide if they want to have justice.”

The diocese’s Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program is winding down after almost a year but expects to compensate roughly 300 victims, most of them men. The settlements, according to lawyers involved in the cases, range from $25,000 and $500,000. In return, the victims agree not to sue the diocese.

Bishop John Barres and the fund’s administrators “feel that the program went well and pray that it has paved the way for reconciliation and healing with those who chose to participate,” said diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan.

The program does not cover those who were adults when they were abused or those whose abuser belonged to a religious order, Dolan said. The diocese, however, has always been supportive of all victims, providing pastoral care that included counseling paid for by the diocese, he said.

“Bishop Barres has continued this practice, responding through the Diocesan Office for the Protection of Children and Young People, regardless of the circumstances of the abuse or the age of the victim,” Dolan said.

Gorman stayed silent until last year, when she was inspired by the #MeToo movement. Her alleged abuser died in 1992.

“I was like, ‘I have to tell somebody, and justice has to be done,’” she said. “I try and really not think about it most of the time. When I talk about it, it only brings me right back to that day.”

Gorman went to the program’s administrators, who explained she wasn’t eligible but referred her case to the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors told her they couldn’t act on her allegations because the statute of limitations expired long ago.

Siering reported his alleged abuser about a decade ago to the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn, whose work in education takes place mostly on Long Island. He said the brothers offered to pay for counseling, which he accepted. Brother Christopher Thurneau, superior general of the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn, did not respond to requests for comment.

The abuse threw Siering into a depression so deep he tried to kill himself, he said.

“My single mother trusted him,” Siering said of his alleged abuser, who died in 1993. “She actually told me one time, ‘Do whatever he says, because he’s a brother, he’s looking out for you.’ I did what my mother said.”

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