Priest sues diocese; alleges persecution for reporting abuse

Published 9:22 am Friday, January 13, 2017

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.  — A Roman Catholic priest filed suit Wednesday against his former diocese, saying that the bishop pushed him aside and lied about him because he called law enforcement after another priest showed child pornography to a teenage boy and cooperated with the investigation.

The Rev. John Gallagher said that Bishop Gerald Barbarito of the Palm Beach Diocese forced him from the church where he worked and publicly called him a liar after he refused to cover up for the other priest. Joseph Palimattom was convicted of showing obscene material to a minor, spent six months in jail and was deported home to India.

Gallagher told The Associated Press that his case shows the church has not reformed as promised after it became public knowledge that church leaders had covered up sexual abuse by priests for decades around the world.

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“Any priest could be in this situation,” Gallagher said. “Any priest in this situation should know that if it happened to them, they will not get the support of the church. You will be ostracized.”

The lawsuit does not seek a specific amount, but Gallagher’s attorney Ted Babbitt said he will seek enough to cover Gallagher’s lost salary and benefits plus punitive damages for his lost reputation.

The diocese declined specific comment on the lawsuit, but pointed to Barbarito’s previous denials of Gallagher’s allegations. In those statements, made last year after Gallagher went public with his accusation, Barbarito says that he and other church officials acted appropriately when Gallagher informed them of Palimattom’s crime.

“We not only immediately reported the incident to the police and state attorney, but cooperated as fully in the investigation as we could,” Barbarito said in one statement that was read in churches throughout the diocese. “Father Gallagher’s harmful assertions are an embarrassment to my brother priests as well as to me.”

Gallagher, 49 and a priest since 1992, came to the United States from his native Northern Ireland in 2000 and became the head priest at Holy Name of Jesus in West Palm Beach in April 2014.

That following December, Palimattom arrived from India and was assigned to be Gallagher’s assistant.

According the lawsuit, church officials in India did not tell Gallagher that Palimattom had been previously accused of sexually abusing children.

Gallagher says in the lawsuit that on Jan. 5, 2015, three weeks after Palimattom’s arrival, a 14-year-old boy complained that Palimattom had shown him sexually explicit photographs of naked boys who were approximately 6 years old.

Gallagher says he immediately confronted Palimattom, who admitted showing the photographs to the teen. The conversation was witnessed by a retired Palm Beach County sheriff’s detective and his wife, the church’s office manager.

“His answer was, ‘I’ve done this before, I have gone to confession, been told to say my prayers and everything will be OK,’” Gallagher said Wednesday.

Gallagher says he and the retired detective contacted the state attorney’s office and were told that the teen’s father had already reported Palimattom, who was arrested the next day.

He said he then called the diocese and was told that the normal procedure would be to send Palimattom home to India. He says he was also told him not to offer too much information to investigators, but he says he recounted his entire conversation with Palimattom to detectives. He also turned over security video showing the conversation.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office issued two commendation letters to Gallagher thanking him for his assistance. Chief Deputy Michael Gauger and Detective Debi Phillips each wrote that in previous investigations of sexual abuse the local church had not cooperated, so they were pleased by how helpful Gallagher had been. Two previous bishops of the diocese resigned after admitting to sexually abusing boys before arriving in Florida.

Gallagher said he then wrote letters to high-ranking Catholic officials, saying Palm Beach Diocese officials had tried to cover up the Palimattom case. He said Barbarito retaliated by driving him from Holy Name of Jesus by turning the Spanish-speaking portion of the parish against him. He said that in May 2015 when he was hospitalized for a possible heart attack, Barbarito showed up in his room and berated him, accusing him of faking. He said that when he was released, he found that he had been locked out of the parish.

After some Holy Name of Jesus parishioners publicly protested his dismissal, Barbarito had diocese priests read a statement in January 2016 at all Masses saying Gallagher was spreading falsehoods. On a Facebook page, one diocese official wrote Gallagher “is blatantly lying and in need of professional help as well as our prayers and mercy.” Similar statements were made to local news media.

Gallagher said Wednesday that he is unsure if he wants to remain a priest.

“Why would I ever trust them again?” he asked.