Like Jesus – Unfairly Accused
By David Cavaliere
There is no denying the horrific problem that has resulted from abuse by members of the clergy against children. It is an issue that everyone is in agreement about – namely, it must end and those that are guilty of the heinous crime must be punished.
Since the first major report of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, published in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles by the Boston Globe in 2002, there has been a ground swell of cases. It has now become clear to everyone that the problem existed for decades and that the unspeakable acts occurred throughout the world. Individuals have recounted events going back many years with heart-wrenching accounts of being coerced into illicit activities by those whose role they saw as spiritual leaders.
It is a highly volatile topic with fingers of blame pointing to the highest levels of the Church. From 2001 to 2010, the Holy See examined sexual abuse cases involving almost 3,000 priests, some of which dated back fifty years. Diocesan officials and academics knowledgeable about the Roman Catholic Church say that sexual abuse by clergy was an off-limits topic, generally not discussed and thus, difficult to measure. Members of the Church’s hierarchy have argued that media coverage has been excessive and disproportionate, stating that such abuse also takes place in other religions and institutions. That stance dismayed critics, who saw it as a device to avoid resolving the abuse problem within the Church.
In a 2001 apology, John Paul II called sexual abuse within the Church “a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ.” Benedict XVI apologized, met with victims and spoke of his “shame” at the evil of abuse, calling for perpetrators to be brought to justice and denouncing mishandling by church authorities.
Two years ago, Pope Francis acknowledged that the Vatican had a backlog of over 2,000 sexual abuse cases. In 2018, referring to a particular case in Chile, the Pope accused victims of fabricating allegations, but by April, he apologized for his “tragic error” and by August was expressing “shame and sorrow” for the tragic history. He convened a four-day summit with presidents of all of the episcopal conferences of the world. It was held in Vatican City from February 21 – 24 of this year to discuss preventing sexual abuse by Catholic Church clergy.
The United States has been the focus of many of the scandals and subsequent reforms. An organization established by lay Catholics called BishopAccountability.org, has reported that over 3,000 civil lawsuits have been filed against the church, with some settlements reaching more than one million dollars. From 2003 to 2009, nine settlements, involving 375 cases with 1551 claimants/victims, resulted in payments of over $1 billion. The Associated Press estimated the settlements of sexual abuse cases from 1950 to 2007 totaled more than $2 billion. The figure is now estimated to exceed $3 billion.
One point that has not been raised is what is the recourse of a deceased clergy member who has been accused decades after an alleged incident? What about a case involving an incident that had nothing to do with sexual abuse that was investigated and found to be unworthy of any further action?
Such is the case associated with beloved Monsignor Joseph Ansaldi, renowned educator and former principal of St. Joseph-by-the-Sea High School in Staten Island, NY. Monsignor Ansaldi passed away in 2015 and continues to be revered by those who knew him.
On April 26, 2019, the Archdiocese of New York unveiled a list of 30 bishops, priests and deacons that served on Staten Island who were “credibly accused of sex abuse.” Essentially, it was a list of clergy members who stood accused and had monetary payments made to claimants by the Archdioceses. Monsignor Joseph Ansaldi’s name appeared on the list. It was a shock to the communities that he had served, to former students, faculty and to his family members.
The names on the list released by the Archdioceses related to claims made under the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP) that were deemed eligible for compensation. This is according to a statement by the Archdiocese. Although the Church has long known about the issues of abuse, it has held tight control over many aspects of church life around the globe. It left cases of sexual abuse to be handled locally. It was only in 2001 that the Church first required incidents be reported to the Vatican.
The statement by the Archdioceses also indicated that the compensatory program was not an adjudicatory body and therefore would not be required to adhere to the same standards as a court of law. Cardinal Timothy Dolan stressed that inclusion on the list “does not state or imply that he is guilty of a crime or liable for any civil claim.”
In other words, payments to claimants would be based upon the decisions of the Archdioceses and as long as the claimant abandoned further action, accepting a payment would extinguish any further liability to the Church. The records, including the names of the abused and the alleged actions would remain sealed files. The more colloquial expression to describe such an arrangement is ‘hush money.’
This was the first (and only) time that Monsignor Ansaldi’s name had been cited by the Church in connection with the abuse scandal. As expected, no information was provided by the Archdioceses about the circumstances of the accusation against him.
The purpose of this article is not to examine the group, or the actions of the clergy, but to shed light on the facts of this case; the process employed by the Archdioceses and the injustice the Church has rendered, besmirching the name, reputation and legacy of a man of God, following his passing. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is in favor of erasing the names on all memorials, scholarships and buildings associated with accused priests. Although the Archdioceses has made no decision as to how it will ultimately respond to the legacy of those on the list, the public should be made aware of the facts in this specific instance.
Born in Manhattan, Joseph Ansaldi attended Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx and St. Joseph’s in West Park. He studied for the priesthood at St. Charles College in Baltimore and St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, NY. He was ordained in 1962 in St. Patrick’s Cathedral by the late Cardinal Francis Spellman. He served at the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin on Staten Island from 1962-1963 and then returned to Cardinal Hayes High School, this time, as a teacher. He served as dean of discipline and taught religion, history and German from 1963 to 1978.
He joined the faculty of St. Joseph-by-the-Sea High School as academic dean in 1978 and taught American history, religion and French. He became principal of the school in 1982, at a time when the school was facing enormous financial challenges. During his 27 years as principal, Monsignor Ansaldi is credited with spearheading an amazing transformation at the high school. He was instrumental in increasing the academic standards of the school and added numerous programs, including Sea’s music and band program as well as athletic programs for volleyball, football, wrestling and lacrosse. He also steadily built enrollments in the school to roughly 1,400 students when he stepped down as principal.
Monsignor Ansaldi also expanded the Sea campus off Hylan Boulevard in Huguenot, adding a music wing and creating a sports complex. He also added a second auditorium; a student television studio; numerous state-of-the-art computer labs, as well as modernized science labs. He was also concerned with keeping tuition rates affordable for middle-class Staten Island families. In 2010 the school’s Family Association and Alumni Foundation named the school’s new endowment fund the Monsignor Joseph C. Ansaldi Fund, with donations and contributions applied to student scholarships and grants.
Joseph C. Ansaldi was elevated to monsignor in 1990 by the late Pope John Paul II. The following year he was named as co-vicar for Staten Island by the late Cardinal John J. O’Connor, a position he maintained until 1998, when he stepped down as vicar to devote more of his time to St. Joseph-by-the-Sea.
After reaching the mandatory age of retirement for priests (75), Monsignor Ansaldi served as a chaplain at St. Peter’s Boys High School, New Brighton and St. Joseph Hill Academy, Arrochar and as a chapel assistant at Monsignor Farrell High School, Oakwood. The Monsignor was revered even after his death in 2015. A chapel at St. Peter’s Boys High School was named for Monsignor Ansaldi in 2016.
The Importance of Context
An investigation into the facts revealed that in in the case of Monsignor Ansaldi, the allegation stems from the disciplinary measure that he undertook against an incorrigible student while at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx. The exact date of the incident is actually uncertain; it took place in late 1964, or early 1965. A student was sent to (then) Father Ansaldi for disciplinary action. As was not only common place during that era, but encouraged in Catholic schools, corporal punishment was used to teach the student a lesson. In this case, the student received a sound paddling with a hairbrush. Whether it was a ruler, a yard stick, a pointer or in this case – a hairbrush, the discipline was administered the same way. The student stood, leaned forward and received a few whacks to instill the lesson. In a high school setting, it was less about pain and more about the humiliation of being treated like a child. It was by no means sexual in nature and was a fully accepted part of the discipline used in Catholic schools 50 years ago. Many students have recounted that if they mentioned that they were paddled in school by a teacher, it would result in a sound thrashing at home as well. To incur the wrath of a priest, nun, or teacher would mean that the student was not only guilty of the infraction, but that reinforcement of the punishment at home was also necessary.
While the world has become far more permissive and attitudes about such actions have changed markedly over the past generation, there is no doubt that Monsignor Ansaldi believed that he was imparting an important lesson to the youth. The actions are no longer an acceptable means of discipline in the new millennium, yet this was the only complaint ever levied against the man of God, Monsignor Ansaldi
Who could imagine that almost 40 years later, the incorrigible student would reemerge claiming abuse by the disciplinarian. As the Catholic Church was forced to acknowledge and compensate victims for sexual abuse, a grey area of culpability emerged. If the standards used to investigate victims for compensation were too strident, the Church would be accused of ignoring the plight of victims. A system for filing claims to receive compensation was established by the Archdioceses of New York and although no one would ever acknowledge the mindset, it was set up with the expectation that where there is smoke, there is fire; essentially branding the accused as guilty until proven innocent.
In 2003, the former Cardinal Hayes student, now a middle-aged adult, contacted the Prosecutor’s Office of the Bronx to file a complaint against Monsignor Ansaldi. The office took down the information and reported the incident to the Archdiocese Office. A paperwork trail had begun.
Monsignor Ansaldi was summoned to Cardinal Edward Egan’s office to answer the charges that had been filed. I had the good fortunate to speak to the driver who took Monsignor Ansaldi to the meeting with the Cardinal. She is also a member of a religious order and as a nun, educator and friend of the Monsignor, had exceptional recollection of the ride. The good sister had known the Monsignor for many years. She recounted the drive both to Manhattan from Staten Island and the ride following the meeting. She expressed that Monsignor Ansaldi was terribly surprised, upset and bewildered by the allegation. The Monsignor was queried by the Cardinal and explained his actions as best as he could remember. Bear in mind that the issue involved a minor disciplinary action from almost four decades earlier. The sister recounted that afterwards, Monsignor Ansaldi retained an attorney, at the urging of his brother – should the incident escalate. It did not. After a short stay with his brother, the Monsignor returned to Staten Island and told the sister that “Everything is alright.” The prosecutor’s office in the Bronx found that the allegation and claim by the former student was baseless and had no merit. The Monsignor’s attorney indicated that the findings of the investigation found that Monsignor Joseph Ansaldi was innocent of ANY wrongdoing. It was dropped without further action, but the paper trail now led to the Archdioceses Office.
For the remainder of the twelve years of the Monsignor’s life, the upsetting incident faded to the background. There was no need for any discussion. To Monsignor Ansaldi, his concern was for his former student, who he believed was in some way disturbed. It never occurred to him that he was being set up for a money grab.
Monsignor Joseph C. Ansaldi passed away on November 12, 2015 at St. Charles Rectory, Staten Island. He was 79. His former students were effusive in their praise and mourning for their teacher and principal. He turned St. Joseph-by-the-Sea into an exemplary high school. He shepherded students through their years at the school, which had a 100% rate of graduates who went on to college and beyond.
Within months of Monsignor Ansaldi’s passing, the former Cardinal Hayes student, now 50 years removed from graduation, filed a claim under the Archdiocese of New York Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program. One of the elements of the program states that if the individual is satisfied with the proposed compensation, they agree to waive their rights to litigate against the New York Archdiocese. Included with the standards for compensation are those of life-altering psychological damage.
Due to his passing, Monsignor Ansaldi was unable to answer the charges and given the pervasive shift in attitude within the Church, a settlement was made to the claimant. With all of the media coverage and outrage by the public, it is not surprising that the Church would be so acquiescent and simply want the matter to go away. Since the process is confidential, the amount of compensation paid is unknown. This capricious action by the Archdioceses has had the knock-on effect of including the Monsignor’s name on a list where his legacy is horribly tarnished. The Archdioceses remains silent. They published the list, but no other details were provided. It required diligent investigation to gather the facts and interview as many of the parties involved as possible (who have uniformly requested anonymity), to shed light on an incident from so long ago.
Based upon the facts, it is clear that Monsignor Joseph Ansaldi’s reputation should remain fully intact. Throughout his life in the priesthood, he was a man of strict moral character. His gift of teaching was shared with countless students. His role and legacy as an administrator continues to benefit students to this day. The works of his life cannot be defined by the opportunity taken by a greedy former student, who saw silver in his pocket as more important than the life of a man of God. We have encountered such actions through our study of the life of Jesus and the story of Judas. The parallels in the two stories are undeniable and the result – injustice and heartache when one who is falsely accused, has been a lesson for the ages. It is also one that the Catholic Church should know well, but has apparently ignored in its present state of worry. As much as the Church is rightly concerned about the public’s perception of its response to a long-standing and horrific issue, wishing a problem to go away by offering compensation is not a solution.
Admittedly the Catholic Church is in a difficult position, but in this instance, all reason and intelligence have been left by the curb. The inclusion of Monsignor Ansaldi’s name on such a list with a caveat that it “does not state or imply that he is guilty of a crime or liable for any civil claim,” is no excuse. An injustice has been done by the Archdioceses and they should be held accountable to all those who cherish the memory of Monsignor Joseph C. Ansaldi.