A Philadelphia man has sued the Catholic Diocese of Camden, saying he was sexually abused by a now-deceased priest at a parish in Ventnor when he was 7 years old, he and his attorneys announced Tuesday morning, a day after Gov. Phil Murphy signed a new law that expands the rights of victims to sue abusers and their employers.
The lawsuit alleges that the Rev. Brendan Sullivan exposed himself to the boy and fondled and groped him while he was naked. The assaults took place from 1996 until 2001, the suit said.
Justin Hoffmann, 29, said he hopes that his lawsuit, filed Monday in Superior Court, would help others come forward and know they will be heard.
In addition to the diocese, Hoffmann is suing former Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and St. James Parish and its successor, Holy Trinity Parish, which is overseen by the Camden Diocese. Hoffmann contends that church officials were aware or should have been aware of the abuse and should be held accountable for not stopping it.
Hoffmann said he struggled for years to come to terms with what happened to him, confusing the abuse with what he viewed as a friendship that evolved into a sexual relationship.
“I had no clue that anything was wrong that had happened to me,” he said at a news conference with his attorneys in Cherry Hill. “I just thought it was a relationship.”
After he became an altar boy at 7, he and the priest spent time together at the church, Hoffmann said, and later went on outings that included boating and dinners.
Initially he said, the priest’s physical contact with him seemed more playful than exploitive. It wasn’t until he had his first girlfriend that his relationship with Sullivan began to seem odd. Once, he said, he and Sullivan were on a boat and when his girlfriend called, Sullivan took the phone away.
Eventually, as Hoffmann began to spend more time with his girlfriend, his relationship with the priest faded. In the years that followed, Hoffmann said, he had a series of bad relationships and began to abuse alcohol. He later joined the Navy. He said he has been sober for more than a year, and now works as a chef in Philly.
“He’s overcome a lot of personal demons,” said one of his attorneys, Gerald J. Williams of the Williams Cedar firm with offices in Haddonfield and Philadelphia.
In the lawsuit, Hoffmann alleges that Sullivan was “a serial molester” who abused other victims as well.
Michael Walsh, spokesperson for the diocese, said in an email that the diocese first learned of abuse allegations against Sullivan in 2010 and removed him from ministry, even though he had already retired. “As in all such cases," he said, "the diocese will notify law enforcement authorities of the accusation and offer professional counseling and therapy to anyone who claims to have been abused.”
Sullivan was ordained in 1960 and served as a priest at 10 South Jersey parishes, according to the lawsuit. He served at St. James from 1987 until he retired in 2004.
Efforts to reach DiMarzio, who now serves in Brooklyn, N.Y., for comment on the allegations in the lawsuit were unsuccessful.