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January 19, 2019

One-time top-ranking NYC priest accused of sexually abusing underage sisters over five years

January 9, 2019
St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Ave. in Midtown. Accused cleric served as secretary to Terence Cardinal Cooke and his successor John Cardinal O’Connor, (Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News)

Two Bronx sisters accused a high-ranking Catholic Church official of sexually assaulting them across five years after he was welcomed into their neighborhood as a parish priest.

The allegations were made public Wednesday outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral by Robert Hoatson, president of Road to Recovery, a charity assisting abuse victims and their families.

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The older girl was in her early teens and her kid sister just age 7 when the abuse by Msgr. Charles McDonagh began in their home in 1972, according to Hoatson.

McDonagh had just arrived at Our Lady of Refuge, a heavily Irish parish in the Bronx. The priest, who died in 1999, was later promoted to serve as secretary to Terence Cardinal Cooke and his successor John Cardinal O’Connor, spending about six years in the position.

The two targeted siblings “worshiped their parish priest,” said Hoatson. “And, as a result of that, Msgr. Charles McDonagh inserted himself into their family and abused two of the girls in that family.”

Robert Hoatson, president of Road to Recovery, outside the cathedral.
Robert Hoatson, president of Road to Recovery, outside the cathedral. (Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News)

The older of the two was allegedly abused from ages 13 to 17, while the younger child was allegedly targeted from ages 7 to 12.

“The sexual abuse … occurred dozens of times from approximately 1972 to approximately 1977 in the family home under the pretext of blessing the minor girls in bed,” charged attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents the accusers.

Garabedian’s efforts in exposing sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston were recounted in the movie “Spotlight.”

The lawyer alleged there was a coverup in the Bronx case as well, involving a prominent Catholic priest who hosted a popular cable television program.

The Rev. Benedict Groeschel, who died at age 81 in 2014, came under fire for defending the church against a “media persecution” as allegations of child sex abuse and a coverup exploded. Two years before his death, Groeschel suggested the alleged victims of abuse were actually the “seducer” of the priest.

According to Garabedian, the victims’ mother went to Groeschel in the 1990s to report what had happened — and the priest buried the allegations.

“The sexual abuse by Msgr. McDonagh and the coverup by Father Benedict Groeschel is further evidence of the lack of morality by the Catholic Church with regard to the wholesale sexual abuse of children,” said Garabedian.

The Archdiocese of New York said it had been unaware of any allegations about McDonagh, who died in April 1999.

“There was nothing in his file indicating any allegation of abuse. The first allegation that the archdiocese received about him came as a result of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program,” the Archdiocese said in an emailed statement.

Sexual abuse survivor Michael Meenan, who’s known the two accusers since they were all children in the Bronx, accused the “very charismatic and popular” McDonagh with using his vocation to gain access to the sisters.

After visiting the family home in the Bronx to say a private Mass, McDonagh “would then go into the bedroom of the young girls and sexually molest them,” said Meenan.

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“This is a devout Catholic family who are pillars of the community,” said Meenan. “These are people who feel deeply betrayed.”

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