A former priest at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church on Wednesday sued the Diocese of Palm Beach, claiming it punished him for exposing a pedophile priest rather than covering it up as they wanted.
The lawsuit, filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, accuses the diocese and Bishop Gerald Barbarito of defaming the Rev. John Gallagher. The 49-year-old priest pointed to a statement posted last year on the diocesan website that said Gallagher was “blatantly lying” and “in need of professional assistance” for claiming church leaders urged him not to tell police a visiting priest in January 2015 had shown pornographic pictures to a 14-year-old youth at the suburban West Palm Beach church.
“Today is a sad day,” said Gallagher, who was wearing a clerical collar at a morning press conference. “Thirty years of my life has been destroyed by the Roman church.”
His attorney, Ted Babbitt, said his treatment is especially heinous because the Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Francis has pledged to vigorously root out priests accused of sex offenses.
Gallagher says that when he learned of transgressions by a visiting priest, the Rev. Jose Varkey Palimattom, diocesan leaders told him the best course of action was to put Palimattom on a plane back to his home in India. Gallagher said he also learned Palimattom had a history of inappropriate conduct with children in India, making Gallagher suspect the church was continuing its well-documented practice of moving problem priests to other parishes.
After Gallagher worked with Palm Beach County sheriff’s detectives to prosecute Palimattom, he was locked out of the church on Southern Boulevard and Military Trail. While he was lauded by Chief Deputy Sheriff Michael Gauger for working with detectives, he was treated like a pariah by diocesan leaders, Babbitt said.
Further, Gallagher said, his pleas for assistance from other church leaders, including those at the Vatican, went unanswered.
He said he reached out to Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, who was sent to Palm Beach County in 2002 to become its bishop after two of his predecessors were removed as a result of sexual misconduct. O’Malley, who went on to lead the troubled Catholic Church in Boston after it was rocked by priest pedophile scandals and was later elevated to cardinal, offered no help, Gallagher said.
Sadly, Babbitt said, Gallagher’s treatment shows the church has not taken steps to deal with abuses that were detailed last year in the award-winning movie, “Spotlight.”
“It’s exactly the same attitude,” he said. Like priests in the movie that chronicled the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation of sexual misconduct by Catholic clergy, church leaders wanted to deny wrongdoing. “It shows the Catholic Church has learned nothing despite years of abuse scandals,” Babbitt said.
Dianne Laubert, a diocesan spokeswoman, said officials hadn’t seen the lawsuit. But, she said, their view of Gallagher’s allegations haven’t changed since they surfaced last January. In a statement that Barbarito on Jan. 29 asked be read during church services throughout the diocese, he denied the allegations.
“Our Diocese in no way, as Father Gallagher erroneously asserts, tried to ‘cover up’ the inappropriate behavior of a visiting priest,” Barbarito wrote. “In fact, in accord with our very rigorous policies pertaining to the protection of children, we not only immediately reported the incident to the police and State Attorney, but cooperated as fully as we could in the investigation.”
“Father Gallagher’s harmful assertions are an embarrassment to my brother priests as well as me,” the bishop wrote.
The diocese also posted three statements about Gallagher on its website last year. In one, it wrote: “Father Gallagher is blatantly lying and is in need of professional assistance as well as our prayers and mercy.”
Palimattom pleaded guilty in April 2015 to a charge of showing obscene material to a minor and was sentenced to six months in jail.
Last year as the controversy brewed, The Palm Beach Post reported that some fellow priests claimed Gallagher was upset that he was passed over for promotions and had numerous problems since arriving in the diocese from his home in Northern Ireland roughly 20 years ago.
In the lawsuit, Gallagher said the experience has reignited the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffers as a result of horrors he suffered in his war torn homeland. As pressure increased from church leaders to ignore Palimattom’s misdeeds, he was hospitalized with a heart attack. Upon his release, he discovered he was locked out of his home and his church, Babbitt said.
Gallagher said he has received no support from priests in the five-county diocese or any of the roughly 3,000 families who were members of the congregation. He said the diocesan’s statements against him are ironic.
One of the 10 Commandments dictates that “thou shall not bear false witness,” he said. “They used the pulpit to defame my name and my character.”