WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) – A priest sued the Diocese of Palm Beach, claiming it defamed him in retaliation for his objections to its attempted cover-up of a foreign clergyman’s pedophilia.
In a lawsuit filed in Palm Beach County, the Rev. John Gallagher claims that the way the Catholic Church treated him “shows without question that [it] has learned nothing from its history and continues to cover up acts of priest pedophilia.”
Gallagher says the Diocese of Palm Beach went on a campaign to sully his reputation after he publicly objected to its unwillingness to cooperate with police in a pedophilia investigation involving Joseph Palimatton, an assistant priest from India who was serving at Gallagher’s Holy Name of Jesus church in West Palm Beach.
Palimatton arrived at the church from India in December 2014, and within a month, he stood accused of a sex crime: He allegedly showed images of child pornography to a 14-year-old, including “numerous photographs of minor children who were naked and had erect penises.”
Unbeknownst to Father Gallagher, Palimatton had been involved in several sexual abuse events, the lawsuit claims. The Catholic Church in India had transferred him to Gallagher’s church allegedly without disclosing his past abuses.
When Gallagher confronted Palimatton about the child porn incident in West Palm Beach, Palimatton’s “attitude was that the entire matter could be cured by him going to confession, as previously instructed by his superiors in India,” the lawsuit claims.
Palimatton’s pedophilic activity was reported to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office by the 14-year-old boy’s family, and Palimatton was arrested in Jan. 2015.
Gallagher contacted the Diocese of Palm Beach, the local district of the Catholic Church, and asked for guidance.
A chancellor for the Diocese “told Father Gallagher that the normal way the Diocese handled a matter like this was to send the offending priest on an airplane back home,” Gallagher says.
He says the chancellor instructed him not to take a lot of notes.
A few days later, when Gallagher advised the chancellor that a church video camera had captured the Palimatton incident, the chancellor “told Father Gallagher not to inform the police of that fact,” the lawsuit states.
Gallagher claims he warned the chancellor that the police were coming to pick the video up, and the chancellor responded by saying Gallagher didn’t have to give that to them.
According to the lawsuit, a diocesian attorney did not want Gallagher to relay too much information to the police, in case the victim’s family brought a civil claim against the church. The attorney called Gallagher directly and repeatedly told him he didn’t have to tell the police everything he knew, Gallagher says.
Gallagher says that in the year following the incident, he wrote letters to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in the Vatican, and to various archbishops and cardinals concerning the attempted cover-up.
In the meanwhile, he was applauded by the sheriff’s department for his participation in the investigation.
Detective Debi Phillips wrote to her colleague in the department, noting that although she had encountered uncooperative and dismissive behavior from the Catholic Church in a past investigation, she found that Gallagher was helpful and played a pivotal role in Palimatton’s arrest.
But instead of commending Gallagher, the Diocese of Palm Beach and its members carried out a campaign of defamation against him, he alleges.
Bishop Gerald Barbarito and the Diocese accused Gallagher of inventing the narrative about the cover-up.
The Diocese released a statement in Jan. 2016, asserting that “Father Gallagher is blatantly lying and is in need of professional assistance as well as our prayers and mercy.”
And Bishop Barbarito faxed pastors in the Diocese and asked them to read to their congregations a message in which Barbarito proclaimed that Gallagher’s claim of church misconduct “is but another one of his fabrications which is causing harm to the Church.”
“I truly regret Father Gallagher’s behavior for which there is no founded reason. … Father Gallagher’s harmful assertions are an embarrassment to my brother priests as well as to me,” the message stated.
Gallagher says that in May 2015, long before these disparaging comments about him were released, he was hospitalized for an apparent heart attack due to stress from dealing with the church following the Palimatton incident. The lawsuit claims his medical problems were compounded by post-traumatic stress disorder from Gallagher’s “history of having been abducted” amid political turmoil in his homeland of Northern Ireland.
The lawsuit, filed last week, says Bishop Barbarito showed up in the hospital with a hostile attitude. Rather than comforting Gallagher and reading the sacrament of the sick, Barbarito became “confrontational, demanding that Father Gallagher explain why he was faking an illness,” the lawsuit states.
“After discharge from the hospital, Father Gallagher attempted to return to his quarters in his church only to find that the locks had been changed. He was locked out of his home and church and was homeless,” the lawsuit states.
An elderly nun who tried to help him retrieve his files from the church was caught in the act and fired, the lawsuit claims.
The Diocese of Palm Beach referred Courthouse News back to its Jan. 2016 statement, wherein it disputes Gallagher’s account.
“Access to his residence was never denied … nor was [Gallagher] refused the sacraments. At his request he was placed on medical leave and continues to receive salary, health insurance and benefits,” the statement says, adding, “He has not made known to the Diocese his whereabouts.”
According to the Diocese, Gallagher was neither demoted nor removed on account of the Palimatton incident.
The Diocese said that upon learning of the allegations against Palimatton, it immediately contacted law enforcement and discovered that the incident had already been reported.
The Diocese told Courthouse News it has not reviewed the lawsuit, and declined to comment beyond the already-released statement.
The district has a troubled, well-publicized history of dealing with child abuse. One of its bishops, Joseph Symons, resigned in 1998 after admitting he molested several boys. Symons was replaced by Anthony O’Connell, who later resigned as well, likewise admitting to acts of child molestation.
Palm Beach County court records indicate that Palimatton pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in jail and one year of probation on a charge of showing obscene material to a minor. His probation was terminated in March 2016, the records indicate.
It appears that tension between Gallagher and some members of Holy Name of Jesus occurred tangential to the Palimatton incident. Gallagher had a dispute with Latino priest Jose Crucet, the details of which became public, with Crucet asserting that Gallagher was combative and precipitated his departure from Holy Name.
The Crucet-Gallagher dispute contributed to disdain for Gallagher from some Spanish-speaking members of Holy Name who supported Crucet. The tiff appears to have partly coincided with the fallout from Palimatton’s child porn incident. Some church members at the time criticized Gallagher for having a piano and a bar installed in a Holy Name rectory and hosting parties there, the Palm Beach Post reported.
According to Gallagher’s lawsuit, the Diocese attempted to use the dispute between Crucet and Gallagher as an excuse to show that Gallagher was not fit to lead his church.