In late April 2020, the former Catholic priest James T. Hanley passed away. Hanley was one of the first priests in the United States to be defrocked amid the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal. According to the Paterson Diocese, where he once served, Hanley died of undisclosed causes at a nursing home. His death prompts memories of the crimes he committed during his tenure as priest and pastor.
Abuses of Father Hanley
James T. Hanley served as a pastor at St. Joseph’s Church in Mendham for 10 years. In the course of 14 years, while serving as a priest, Hanley sexually abused more than 12 young boys in Mendham and Pompton Plains. The majority of the public information surrounding Hanley’s abuse comes from his victims and a legal deposition Hanley gave.
Deposition – “The taking and recording of testimony of a witness under oath before a court reporter in a place away from the courtroom before trial.”
Source: Legal Dictionary | Law.com
The Deposition of Rev. James T. Hanley
As part of a civil lawsuit against Hanley, the former priest answered questions about his abusive past. During a deposition in 2003, Hanley admitted to abusing more than 12 boys between 1968 and 1982. According to Hanley, a victim reported his abuse to the Paterson Diocese in 1984. When questioned by the bishop of the diocese, Frank Rodimer, Hanley openly admitted to the abuse.
Despite knowing about the abuse, Rodimer did not remove Hanley from ministry work until 1986. Hanley was eventually laicized in February 2003 — 8 months before his deposition.
When a priest, deacon or bishop is laicized, he is no longer considered a member of the clergy. Laicization is also commonly known as “defrocking.”
Hanley’s sworn statement contributed to a civil lawsuit against the Paterson Diocese. The lawsuit claimed church officials did little to protect young parishioners from such abuse. Bishop Rodimer was named in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit ended in a $5 million settlement to 27 survivors of priest abuse. The majority of the 27 men claimed to be victims of Hanley. The Paterson Diocese also agreed to provide four years of counseling to the men as part of the settlement.
Survivors of Hanley’s Abuse
Bishop Rodimer, like many other Catholic bishops at the time, did not report the incidents of clergy abuse to local law enforcement. Looking to avoid a scandal, these bishops abused their power to protect pedophiles and endangered the safety of future victims. At the time, there were no laws in New Jersey that required clergy members to report the sexual abuse of a minor.
To seek the justice they deserved, many of Hanley’s victims spoke out about the abuse. One of the most outspoken victims against Hanley was Mark Serrano.
Mark Serrano was sexually abused by Hanley between 1974 and 1981. The abuse began when Serrano was 9 years old. Serrano was the victim who brought the abuse to the attention of Bishop Rodimer. In 1987, the Serrano family agreed to a $350,000 settlement with the Diocese of Paterson. The settlement also came with a confidentiality agreement. The Serrano family could not legally speak publicly about the settlement.
Despite the confidentiality agreement, Serrano did eventually speak out about the abuse. In the early 1990s, Serrano and several other victims reported their abuse to the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office. Their testimony initiated an investigation into Hanley’s conduct. However, due to the age of the cases, the prosecutors could not press charges. The statute of limitations for the cases had expired.
A statute of limitations (SOL) is a legal deadline. SOLs are determined at the state level and vary based on the crime.
Serrano would later take his story to major news outlets such as Rolling Stone and The New York Times. He would also serve as regional director and board member of the New Jersey chapter of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
Current Lawsuits Involving James T. Hanley
In February 2019, the Paterson Diocese listed James T. Hanley on its public list of sexually abusive priests in the diocese. In May 2019, New Jersey state lawmakers extended the legal deadline to file civil lawsuits pertaining to the sexual assault of a minor. Additionally, lawmakers opened a 2-year “look back” window. During this time, any victim of child sexual abuse can file a civil claim, no matter how long ago the incident occurred.
Since these new laws were enacted, at least two new suits have been filed for abuses committed by Hanley. These lawsuits target the Paterson Diocese and other Catholic organizations where Hanley worked and committed abuse.
How Victims Can Respond
With Hanley’s passing, abuse survivors may be concerned about whether or not litigation is still possible. A survivor of abuse could sue the priest’s estate. However, a lawsuit against the diocese or organization where the abuse took place could be a preferred legal option for victims seeking compensation. Often a diocese will have greater financial resources to compensate victims for past crimes.
Berry, J. (2002, June 20). The Priest and the Boy. Rolling Stone.
Bishop Accountability. (2003, October 4). Deposition Pages 15-27 [PDF].
Bishop Accountability. (2003, October 4). Deposition Pages 36-45 [PDF].
Brown, L. (2020, April 29). ‘Prolific pedophile’ priest dies in New Jersey nursing home. New York Post.
Gold, J. (2005, February 10). $5 Million Settlement Nears Completion for 27 Who Claimed Priest Abuse. Associated Press. BishopAccountability.
Jones, R.L. (2002, March 18). Former Altar Boy Describes Years of Abuse, Then Years of Silence. The New York Times.
Koloff, A. (2019, December 4). New accusers file suits alleging sex abuse by defrocked Paterson Diocese priest. North Jersey.
Law.com (N.D.) Search Legal Terms and Definitions.
Senate Bill 477, Chapter 120 (New Jersey 2019).
Sheldon, C. (2020, April 28). Defrocked priest, who admitted abusing a dozen children, dies at nursing home. NJ.com.