Giuliani's loyalty to an accused priest

A grand jury accused Alan Placa of molestation and his diocese has suspended him, but the presidential candidate continues to employ his lifelong best friend as a consultant.

Published June 22, 2007 11:39AM (EDT)

Anyone who has followed the career of Republican presidential contender Rudy Giuliani knows the value he places on personal loyalty. Loyalty is what inspired the former mayor of New York to make Bernard Kerik, once his personal driver, the commissioner of the New York Police Department, and then a partner in his consulting firm, and then to suggest him to President Bush as a potential head of the Department of Homeland Security.

After revelations about Kerik's personal history derailed his bid for the federal post, Giuliani demonstrated that there were limits to loyalty. He has distanced himself from Kerik, who resigned from Giuliani's firm and later pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Giuliani has not, however, sought to distance himself from another, much closer friend whose personal baggage is also inconvenient, and would send most would-be presidents running.

Giuliani employs his childhood friend Monsignor Alan Placa as a consultant at Giuliani Partners despite a 2003 Suffolk County, N.Y., grand jury report that accuses Placa of sexually abusing children, as well as helping cover up the sexual abuse of children by other priests. Placa, who was part of a three-person team that handled allegations of abuse by clergy for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, is referred to as Priest F in the grand jury report. The report summarizes the testimony of multiple alleged victims of Priest F, and then notes, "Ironically, Priest F would later become instrumental in the development of Diocesan policy in response to allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests."

Five years after he was suspended from his duties because of the abuse allegations, Placa is currently listed as "priest in residence" at St. Aloysius Church in Great Neck, N.Y., where close friend Brendan Riordan serves as pastor, and officially lives at the rectory there with Riordan. In addition, Placa co-owns a penthouse apartment in Manhattan with Riordan, the latest in a half-dozen properties the two men have owned in common at various times since the late 1980s.

Placa has worked for Giuliani Partners since 2002. As of June 2007, he remains on the payroll. "He is currently employed here," Giuliani spokeswoman Sunny Mindel confirmed to Salon, adding that Giuliani "believes Alan has been unjustly accused." Mindel declined to discuss what role Placa plays with the consulting firm, or how much he is paid. Says Richard Tollner, who testified before the grand jury that Placa had molested him, "[Giuliani] has to speak up for himself and explain himself. If he doesn't, people shouldn't vote for him." Adds Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of, which tracks suspected priest abuse, "I think Rudy Giuliani has to account for his friendship with a credibly accused child molester."

Placa himself did not return several calls from Salon.

Placa, now 62, has been friends with Giuliani since childhood. The boys attended Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn together, where Giuliani, Placa and Peter Powers, later to become chief aide to Giuliani during his first term as mayor of New York City, were in an opera club together. Placa and Giuliani would sometimes double-date. "After we'd drop off the girls," Placa told the New York Times in 1997, "Rudy and I would spend hours in the car or walking down the sidewalks, debating ideas: religion, the problems of the world, what we wanted to be." Giuliani, Powers and Placa later attended Manhattan College together and were fraternity brothers at Phi Rho Pi.

After college, Placa attended seminary and became a Catholic priest. Ordained in May 1970, he was first assigned to St. Patrick's parish in Glen Cove, N.Y., from 1970 to 1974. He then transferred to St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary high school in Uniondale, N.Y., where he taught till 1978. He served as director of research and development for Catholic Charities from 1978 to 1986. He then went to work for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which covers 134 parishes in the two suburban Long Island counties of Nassau and Suffolk and is the sixth largest diocese in the country. Placa ran healthcare services for the diocese, rising to the position of vice chancellor in 1988.

Though their career paths had diverged, Placa remained close to Giuliani, and was actively involved in many of the most important events of his friend's life. He was the best man at Giuliani's first marriage in 1968 to his second cousin, Regina Peruggi, then helped Giuliani get an annulment in 1982 -- over Regina's protests -- so he could marry his second wife, Donna Hanover. Placa officiated at the wedding of Hanover and Giuliani in 1984. In September 2002, while suspended by the diocese over the sexual abuse allegations and no longer permitted to perform priestly duties, Placa received special permission to officiate at the funeral of the former mayor's mother, Helen. He also officiated at the funeral of Giuliani's father and baptized both of Giuliani's children.

During Giuliani's political rise from U.S. attorney to mayor, when reporters wanted quotes from old friends they would often turn to Placa. A 1985 New York Times story noted that Placa stayed over at Giuliani's apartment as often as once a week, where the two men would "talk poetry, theology and politics deep into the night." The monsignor also knew Giuliani well enough to describe his relationship with his father, telling the Times, "A major theme with [Giuliani's] father was his hatred for organized crime."

In 2000, when Mayor Giuliani dropped out of the race for the open U.S. Senate seat now held by Hillary Clinton after finding out he had prostate cancer, a Times reporter went to Placa for insight. He told the paper that "it's been a dramatically challenging time."

When Time magazine named Giuliani its Person of the Year for 2001, Placa appeared again in that story, saying he had known Giuliani since he was 13 and that his cancer and Sept. 11 had "made him face his mortality b

But while Giuliani was being celebrated for his performance on Sept. 11, Alan Placa was about to lose his position of power. In addition to being a priest, Placa had received a law degree, and he first came to work for the diocese as its legal consultant. He was legal counsel to Bishop John McGann, and, starting in 1992, also a member of a three-person diocesan team charged with fielding allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

When a molestation scandal erupted in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston in early 2002, it spilled over into Long Island. The newly installed bishop, William Murphy, had been the No. 2 official in Boston from 1993 to 2001. He had helped arrange early retirement for the most notorious of the abusive priests, Father John Geoghan. After Geoghan was sentenced to prison for molestation in February 2002, the archdiocese revealed that it had settled 100 civil suits on Geoghan's behalf, and also gave law enforcement the names of 90 priests accused of abuse. Responding to public outcry, officials on Long Island subpoenaed the records of the Rockville Centre Diocese, and Bishop Murphy turned over internal files on accused priests to law enforcement in both Nassau and Suffolk counties in March 2002.

In Nassau County, the district attorney concluded that the statute of limitations had expired on all reported incidents and stopped investigating. Suffolk County convened a special grand jury to investigate specific allegations of abuse and how the diocese had dealt with them. The jury heard from 97 witnesses over nine months, and uncovered "deception and intimidation" by those diocesan officials who were supposed to be fielding sexual abuse complaints from parishioners. "The evidence before the grand jury," stated the report, "clearly demonstrates that diocesan officials agreed to engage in conduct that resulted in the prevention, hindrance and delay in the discovery of criminal conduct by priests."

None of the diocesan officials or accused priests are cited in the grand jury's final report by name; the report instead identifies 23 priests by letter, and identifies diocesan officials by the duties they performed. Ultimately, the grand jury determined that "priests working in the Diocese of Rockville Centre committed criminal acts ... These criminal acts included, but were not limited to, Rape, Sodomy, Sexual Abuse, Endangering the Welfare of a Child and Use of a Child in a Sexual Performance." Because the alleged criminal acts had occurred more than five years ago, however, the statute of limitations meant no charges could be filed against any of the accused.

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota would not confirm to the Long Island newspaper Newsday at the time of the report's release in February 2003 that Priest F was Alan Placa. Spota would say, however, that "this is a person who was directly involved in the so-called policy of the church to protect children, when in fact he was one of the abusers." Multiple media outlets have named Placa as Priest F. Placa implicitly acknowledged as much to the New York Times in a Feb. 20, 2003, story, titled "L.I. Monsignor Scorns Jury, Insisting He Is No 'Monster'," in which he denied the specific allegations in the report. One of the victims whose testimony is cited in the report has also confirmed to Salon that Placa is Priest F.

By the time of the report's release, Placa was no longer an active priest. In April 2002, shortly before the grand jury's impaneling, Placa stepped down as vice chancellor and went on sabbatical. The diocese announced that he would be assigned to a parish as a priest after the sabbatical. By then, several families had spoken to media outlets and described their interaction with Monsignor Placa and complained about how he had handled their allegations of abuse. (Placa would later tell a reporter that while he was a member of the three-person diocesan team he did not report allegations of abuse to law enforcement.) But the sabbatical also came a week after Newsday contacted Placa and informed him that accusers had come forward to say he had molested them.

Several months later, Placa's sabbatical turned into a suspension. On June 3, 2002, Newsday published a story on the alleged victims who had accused Placa of abusing them in the 1970s. One of the accusers was Richard Tollner. On June 13, 2002, the day the Nassau County District Attorney's Office contacted the diocese regarding the accusations against Placa, Bishop Murphy stripped Placa of his right to perform priestly duties like giving communion and officiating at weddings and funerals, and placed him on administrative leave.

The Suffolk County grand jury report, released eight months after Placa's suspension, includes evidence from three alleged victims. It states that in Priest F's first assignment, "he appears to have made feeble attempts at abusing a boy who was an alter [sic] server. ... He pulled up a chair next to the boy and put his right hand on his thigh. Slowly his hand began to creep up towards the boy's genital area. Alarmed, the boy covered his crotch. b

"After his first assignment," the report continues, "Priest F was transferred within the Diocese to ... a school. Priest F was cautious, but relentless in his pursuit of victims. He fondled boys over their clothes, usually in his office. Always, his actions were hidden by a poster, newspaper or a book. ... Everyone in the school knew to stay away from Priest F."

The report describes two alleged victims complaining to the school's rector about Priest F, and their "suspicions, later confirmed to be correct," that the priest was abusing a fourth boy. Eventually, one of the alleged victims told Priest F, in an encounter witnessed by another boy, "Don't ever fucking touch me again or I'll kill you."

When one of the victims attempted to report the alleged abuse, "the response I had gotten from my family, from my parents specifically was, that's impossible ... Priests just don't do these things. You must be mistaken."

The report also included memos apparently written by Placa in his capacity as sex abuse investigator for the diocese. In a document from June 1993, he asked colleagues, "Please do not identify me as an attorney [to complainants.]" Another spoke of how Rockville Centre's handling of abuse claims had resulted in the "lowest ratio of losses to assets of any diocese. ... Our system is in place and working well." In a letter, Placa spoke of "[giving] some of my time to helping other bishops and religious congregations with delicate legal problems involving the misconduct of priests. ... In the past 10 years, I have been involved in more than two hundred such cases in various parts of the country." While investigating sexual abuse claims against priests for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, he also served as counsel to the House of Affirmation, a mental-health facility for priests in Worcester, Mass. Patients included priests accused of sexual abuse.

In an interview with Salon, former St. Pius X student Richard Tollner, now 48, confirms that he is one of the alleged victims who testified before the grand jury -- the one who allegedly told Priest F "Don't ever fucking touch me again." He also confirms that Placa is Priest F. Tollner claims Placa molested him and at least two others, but when he told school authorities at the time, he says nothing happened. "No one contacted my family or me," Tollner, now 48, recalls. "I told another priest while I was on a retreat and he said he would explore it and he never did." So far none of the alleged victims besides Tollner has come forward publicly. Placa has denied Tollner's allegations and has referred to the former St. Pius X student as "troubled."

More than four years after the release of the report, Placa remains on administrative leave, as confirmed by Sean Dolan, a spokesman for the diocese. Dolan said he believed there was still an investigative process under way but that he didn't know its status. "You probably have to try to contact [Placa]. I'm not in a position to know that." He added that he didn't think there was a limit to administrative leave. "It can go on indefinitely. I believe that's at the discretion of the bishop."

The church has instituted guidelines for handling allegations of sexual abuse since the Boston scandal, directing that a review board made up mostly of laypeople investigate claims. According to Jim Dwyer, former director of media relations for the Archdiocese of Chicago and current director of public information for the Diocese of Phoenix, if a diocese investigates a priest for sexual abuse and determines that there is "reasonable cause to suspect" that the charges are true, the priest would be "permanently removed from ministry." "It's a lower threshold than in criminal cases," stated Dwyer.

The status of priests who are still under investigation, however, is up to the individual diocese. Dwyer said it was possible for administrative leave to go on for a long period -- "weeks, months, more than a year" -- but that he was "unaware" of any administrative leave that had lasted five years. "But I can imagine a situation where it might." Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington, also thought the duration of Placa's leave was out of the ordinary. "If someone's on leave for five years, it's a little unusual. Normally, if someone goes on leave it's for a short period, about six months, which is renewable."

While Placa is on leave, he is employed elsewhere. In August 2002, after his suspension but prior to the release of the grand jury report, he took a job with Giuliani Partners. There is no public record, however, of what that job entails.

Since the first accusations against Placa surfaced, Giuliani has defended his childhood friend. In June 2002, he insisted that "Alan Placa is one of the finest people I know." In addition to the statement from Mindel to Salon reiterating the ex-mayor's support for Placa, Mindel offered two former St. Pius X students to speak in Placa's defense. Kevin McCormack, who attended St. Pius X while Placa was teaching there and graduated in 1978, dismisses talk of abuse. He claims he never heard of any molestation complaints and adds that the student body was so small that word would have gotten around. "I find the allegations very difficult to believe," says McCormack, now a principal at Xaverian High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. "There was never anything like that that was rumored."

Kevin Way, also a 1978 grad, agreed. "I can't imagine it," says Way, now an attorney. "I find it utterly incredible."

Placa still officially lives at the rectory at St. Aloysius Church in Great Neck, where he continues to be listed as priest in residence. The victims' advocacy group Voice of the Faithful of Long Island held protests outside of St. Aloysius in 2005 and distributed leaflets to show its objection to Placa's involvement there. Says Phil Megna, co-chair of Voice of the Faithful, "His claim to fame is that he bragged of his ability to get things pushed under the rug."

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the issue of whether a priest on administrative leave could live on church property was a diocesan decision. Dwyer of the Diocese of Phoenix said that in his experience it was possible for a priest on administrative leave for sexual abuse allegations to be a "priest in residence" at a church as well, as long as there was no contact with children. In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, however, spokesman Todd Tamberg said that archdiocesan policy would prevent a priest on administrative leave for allegations of sexual abuse from being a "priest in residence. "If you've been put on administrative leave you not only are restricted from functioning as a priest or dressing as a priest but also from living on church property."

It is unclear, however, how much Placa is "in residence." In late 2005, a few months after the Voice of the Faithful's protests, he purchased a penthouse apartment in the Regatta, a condominium building on South End Avenue in Manhattan. According to documents filed with the City of New York, Placa co-owns the 650-square-foot, $550,000 apartment with Brendan Riordan, the pastor of St. Aloysius. They are cited as "joint tenants with right of survivorship" in a condominium unit assignment agreement signed on Dec. 5, 2005. Giuliani spokeswoman Mindel confirmed that Riordan and Placa co-own the apartment and said that Placa stays there "on occasion," but that it is an investment property and he lives primarily at the rectory. She said that Riordan "never stays there."

Placa and Riordan -- who also attended Helen Giuliani's funeral -- have known each other for more than 30 years. Both taught at St. Pius X in the late 1970s, and both worked within the Diocese of Rockville Centre for most of their careers. Together they wrote a book called "Desert Silence: A Way of Prayer for an Unquiet Age" in 1977.

Since the late 1980s, the two men have owned six different properties in New York and Florida in common. From 1991 to 1998, while Riordan was pastor of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Deer Park, N.Y., and Placa was vice chancellor of the diocese, Placa was also priest in residence at Saints Cyril and Methodius. Both men are listed as living at the church rectory in public documents. According to the Official Catholic Directory, Riordan had moved to St. Aloysius in Great Neck as pastor by Jan. 1, 1999; Placa has been listed as priest in residence at St. Aloysius since 1999.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Alex Koppelman

By Joe Strupp

Joe Strupp is a Media Matters Senior Reporter.

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