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"That's a very significant move," Sipe says. Such he-said, he-said allegations can be near impossible to prove in any case, let alone when the subjects are powerful and respected church leaders. But, he adds, "even saying it in a lawsuit will force the subject of the bishops' sexuality out in the open."
And that could spark something of a revolution. Says Sipe, "This lawsuit could be the beginning of a movement."
Hoatson comes across as an unlikely revolutionary. He looks nothing like a Catholic priest, dressed on a recent Tuesday in jeans and a sweater. The wardrobe isn't by choice. Four days after he filed the suit, Newark archdiocesan officials put him on leave. Though he still gets his $1,700 monthly stipend, he's prohibited from presenting "himself publicly as a priest," as the December 20 decree states. He can no longer wear his collar or say Mass at the two parishes where he works.
Sitting in a coffee shop on Astor Place, he talks for hours about the way religion has colored his lifethe way he'd had a "mystical experience" at 13 in which he saw himself as a priest, for instance. By 18, he'd entered the Christian Brothers order of monks, where he would teach in parochial schools for two decades. He felt so drawn to the priesthood that he enrolled in the seminary in 1994, at 42.
"I was called to the priesthood by God," he explains. "I never really understood why."
Hoatson believes he got that reason in the winter of 2002, when the clergy-abuse scandal exploded in Boston and across the country, in dioceses from California to Kentucky to New Hampshire and Iowa. Back then, Hoatson was serving as school director at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, in Newark, watching the crisis unfold on TV. He got word of a victim going public with charges that a Boston monsignor had molested him in the 1980s. The victim turned out to be Hoatson's former student; the official, a former school chaplain.
Hoatson called his onetime student, and soon was making regular trips from Newark to Boston, helping the man come to grips with the trauma of abuse. When other victims came forward, he hooked them up with lawyers or escorted them to confront dioceses. Word spread among survivors in New York and New Jersey about the generous priest. Hoatson has rescued victims from heroin dens; visited them in prison; collected them from shelters; paid their rent. Last year, he set up a ministry known as Rescue and Recovery International out of his Rockaway Park, Queens, apartment.
"He's like a guiding light," says Richard Regan, of Rochester, New York, who says a now-deceased Queens priest molested him and his five siblings in the '50s. Ken Lasch, a retired priest in the Patterson, New Jersey, diocese, calls Hoatson "a locomotivein the lead and full speed ahead." Hoatson would think nothing of letting predatory priests know he's watching, Lasch says. "Bob is that type of person. Once he sees corruption, he goes after it."
Hoatson puts it another way: "This has become a mission for me."
His work has made him wrestle with his own experiences of sexual abuse. As a 22-year-old seminarian in the Christian Brothers, he says, another brother repeatedly molested him over a four-year period. Several years later, he confided in his superior, who Hoatson says assaulted him as well. "I knew it was abuse," he says, but he never identified it as such until years later. Now, he counts himself among a handful of priests who've named their alleged abusers; his lawsuit recounts what he says is molestation he suffered at hands of the two brothers in the '70s and '80s.
What finally triggered his suit was Hoatson's fear that he'd be stopped from working with victims. On May 20, 2003, according to the lawsuit, he testified at an Albany hearing sponsored by the New York State Senate. There, he criticized Catholic bishops for shielding predatory priests. That's exactly what happened in Boston, where the release of internal church documents revealed how Cardinal Bernard Law and his underlings had shuffled pedophiles from parish to parish for decades, covering up abuse while putting children at risk. Bishops who engaged in this practice, Hoatson testified that day, had "selected evil over good, denial over admission, lying over truth-telling."
Three days later, he was relieved of his duties as Good Counsel Parish school director. Hoatson contends that Newark officials told him, as he recalls, "The archbishop [Myers] has asked that you tone down your language." They handed him a termination letter.
His suit claims that Hubbard dialed up Hoatson's boss to complain and, as it states, "had the plaintiff fired from his position." It charges that Egan and his representatives "contributed and became involved in retaliation" as well.
Church officials deny these allegations. "Cardinal Egan did not nor did anyone representing the New York archdiocese ever contact the Newark archdiocese about Father Hoatson," Zwilling says. Goldfarb says that "nothing of consequence" connects Hubbard and the Albany diocese to Hoatson's firing. "There is nothing to this," he adds.
Goodness, Myers's spokesperson, maintains that Hoatson was removed from his school post solely because he'd asked to be transferred seven months earlier. By February, the archdiocese had accepted his request. "This preceded by months any comments he would make to the New York legislature," Goodness argues.