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Inside LI priest's secret trial

Richard Tollner turned to face the judges, swore to tell the truth and nothing but the truth - and to keep it all secret.

The former Westbury resident was testifying in January 2007 in a closed-door Catholic Church trial. His allegation: that Msgr. Alan Placa had sexually molested him in the mid-1970s when he was a high school student on Long Island.

Placa, 65, formerly a high-ranking priest in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, was found not guilty of the allegations recently and was returned to the priesthood after a seven-year suspension. Even as sex abuse victims groups expressed outrage, diocesan officials declared Placa a priest "in good standing." Bishop William Murphy has asked to meet with Tollner next week.

Priest never charged

Placa was never charged by civil authorities with a crime and has denied Tollner's accusations. His case was left to be heard at a canonical trial, a Catholic Church proceeding that is conducted in secrecy and traces its roots to at least the 12th century. Interviews with Tollner, other witnesses and one of the judges - who broke the veil of secrecy to defend the trial - reveal a process honed by tradition.

A "promoter of justice," who is a canon lawyer trained in Catholic law, serves as a kind of district attorney who prosecutes the case on behalf of the church. An advocate, also trained in canon law, acts as the defense counsel. Judges replace juries (as they do in many nations worldwide). And the notion of "moral certitude" trumps "beyond a reasonable doubt."

For many outsiders, it is the trials' secrecy that provokes curiosity, even suspicion. But Catholic legal scholars say canon law calls for closed trials to allow witnesses anonymity and to protect the reputations of the innocent.

"People expect what is done in the U.S. [judicial system] is the best way to do it," said the Rev. Robert Kaslyn, a Jesuit priest and dean of the School of Canon Law at the Catholic University of America. But both that system and the Catholic Church's "are two legitimate legal traditions, both of which have legitimate strengths and weaknesses."

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit and former editor of the order's America magazine, said the system is problematic. He noted it lacks independent investigators, has no power to subpoena evidence or compel people to testify under oath, and lacks prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and others who are independent of one another.

Tollner, 50, said he felt railroaded. "It was a very one-sided trial," he said. "It was some sort of show."

The Rev. David Berberian, an Albany priest and head of the three-judge panel that heard and investigated the case, said its members "bent over backward" to ensure a fair hearing. "We were scrupulous in following the procedures that we're supposed to . . . I believe each one of us, before God, based our decision on what we thought to be true."

The judges' deliberations lasted months, but the trial's in-person testimony took place over three or four days in a third-floor conference room at the Diocese of Albany's headquarters. Albany hosted the proceeding because canonical trials on sex abuse allegations cannot take place in the priest's home diocese.

According to official correspondences provided by witnesses, besides Berberian, the other judges were Msgr. Michael Fitzgerald, who heads the church court system for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and the Rev. John Donovan of the Diocese of Syracuse, where he once served as vocations director. All are canon lawyers.

They sat on one side of a large, rectangular conference table. On the other side: 15 or 16 witnesses who appeared separately and never saw each other. Those included people who went to school with Tollner, at least one other man who said he had been assaulted by Placa - and Placa. To the witnesses' left was the "promoter of justice," the Rev. James Donlon, head of the Office of Canonical Services for the Diocese of Albany.

To the right was the advocate, Charles Renati, an attorney from California specializing in canon law who has defended other priests in sex abuse cases. A stenographer sat in a corner.

Detailing his testimony

Tollner, now a mortgage broker in the Albany area, said the morning of his testimony began with "sweet talk" from the judges to break the ice. Then they asked him to tell his story.

He said he began by recounting an incident in January 1975 at the now-defunct St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary in Uniondale. He said school was closed, and he and other students were making signs in the gymnasium for an upcoming Right to Life march. Placa came in and suggested he follow him down several hallways to the deserted administration offices. There, Tollner said he told the judges, Placa fondled him.

He went on to recount other allegations of sexual molestation in Placa's office that were also detailed in a 2003 Suffolk County grand jury report on priest sex abuse in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

Placa could not be reached for comment about his testimony and has declined interview requests. In the past, he has questioned Tollner's credibility. In an interview in 2002, he described Tollner as "a troubled kid, very emotional, who would fly off the handle easily."

Tollner said the judges questioned him on specifics of the school's layout. At one point, they produced a blueprint to check his answers. He says they told him he was right about the school's layout.

Berberian, the lead judge, would not comment on specifics of what was said. However, he cited contradictions among those testifying on Tollner's behalf and said some people important to the case did not offer testimony.

Renati, Placa's defense attorney, also questioned Tollner. He asked if he was sure he didn't provoke any behavior by Placa, Tollner said.

Tollner's brother, James, 53, of Nashua, N.H., said he had a similar experience when he testified. He said he told the judges Richard had told him of the alleged abuse around the time it allegedly occurred. "They were asking questions like, 'Why didn't your mom do anything about this?' What I told them was my father died unexpectedly of a heart attack [around the same time.]"

He added: "It was almost like they were trying to blame us that we didn't bring it up in the past."

Richard Tollner said he walked out of the tribunal exhausted. Outside, he sat in his car for about 15 minutes to gather himself. A car horn went off and "brought me back to life around me," and he drove off.

Berberian, the head judge, said he was also wearied by the trial - a complex proceeding made more stressful because the stakes were high for the church. "We get scared when these trials come up," he said. "This was the worst experience of my life."

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