WESTFIELD, NJ — A priest abuse lawsuit filed Sunday claims that a late religious leader who served in Westfield for 17 years abused multiple children and that the church covered it up.

The Archdiocese of Newark and Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church are named in the state court lawsuit claiming that the Rev. John Flanagan abused a boy at the church over the course of 10 years in the 1950s and 1960s. While the suit focuses on the abuse of one boy, it claims he was among a series of victims Flanagan abused.

“The issue in these cases is one of notice: What did the church know?” said Jay Mascolo, attorney for the plaintiff, Dennis Thome, who is now 75 and living in Canada. “What did the Archdiocese know about, in this case, Father John Flanagan?”

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The suit follows the state’s loosening of laws surrounding such litigation. It comes on the same day a two-year window opened for victims to file sex abuse lawsuits that are not time limited. Through the litigation, the church will be required to produce documents showing what the religious leadership knew, Mascolo said.

“When the public hears the level of [church] involvement, in a bad way, they’re going to be surprised a little bit and understand why this law passed in the first place,” he said.

The lawsuit, filed at midnight Sunday, claims that Flanagan, who died in 1975, sexually abused Thome from the time he was 7 years old to the time he turned 17, and that Flanagan abused other children at the church.

“From approximately 1951 through 1952, and again in 1961, Father Flanagan exploited the trust and authority vested in him by the defendants by grooming plaintiff to gain his trust and to obtain control over him as part of Father Flanagan’s Plan to sexually molest and abuse other children,” the lawsuit states.

The abuse happened both at the church rectory and on the school grounds of Holy Trinity, “including during school when he would be sent to Father Flanagan,” the lawsuit states.

Mascolo claims Flanagan pulled down Thome’s pants, fondled his genitals and had him touch his own genitals. The abuse also included “anal penetration” and continued when Flanagan served as Thome’s probation officer, said Mascolo, who is with the New Brunswick based law firm of Rebenack, Aronow and Mascolo.

Before coming to Holy Trinity in Westfield, Flanagan was assigned as curate to St. Bernard’s Church in Plainfield following his 1941 ordainment, his obituary says. Flanagan also served for nine years at St. Francis Hospital in Jersey City, the obituary says. He became pastor of Our Lady of All Souls in East Orange in 1969 and also taught at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City.

MORE: Church: 7 Past Westfield Priests Among Clergy Accused of Sex Abuse

Flanagan was among seven priests to serve at churches in Westfield and among 188 statewide whose names the church released in February, then stating that the priests had been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse. Of those, 63 priests were listed to have served within the Archdiocese of Newark.

Maria Margiotta, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Newark, declined to answer questions specific to Flanagan. However, she offered the following statement.

“The Archdiocese of Newark will continue to cooperate and work with victims, their legal representatives and law enforcement authorities in an ongoing effort to resolve allegations made and bring closure to victims.

“The Archdiocese has already made efforts to bring about said resolution and closure, joining with the other dioceses in New Jersey to establish the Independent Victims Compensation Program (IVCP) to offer compensation to eligible survivors who were sexually abused by clergy of the Church while minors.

“While this program has been a viable option for some victims to achieve a level of closure, it always was understood that some may seek resolution through other avenues.”

Mascolo predicts that the lawsuits filed Sunday, including his clients’, are the beginning of what will be more litigation following the state’s opening the two-year window to file such suits. While Flanagan was on the church’s list of credibly accused, Mascolo predicts many more priests who were not named on the list will be revealed in the anticipated litigation.

“That’s the voluntary list that they’re giving,” Mascolo said. “I will bet that there are dozens and dozens more priests who will come out in these lawsuits.”

Email Staff Writer Matt Kadosh at mkadosh@tapinto.net; Follow him on Twitter: @MattKadosh

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