In what could be the first test of its new leadership, the Archdiocese of Miami is defending itself against charges it concealed the sexual abuse of at least one altar boy since the late 1960s.
In a lawsuit filed this morning, 55-year-old Willard Trent claims he was molested and sodomized by Father Thomas Dennehy while serving as an altar boy at St. John the Baptist parish in Ft. Lauderdale from 1967-68.
"It was a nightmare," said Trent, standing outside St. John's this afternoon. He said he suppressed thoughts of the abuse until returning to the church after a health scare last year.
"Then the memories hit me like a ton of bricks," he said.
According to Trent's lawsuit, "the Archdiocese became aware that Father Dennehy was sexually abusing minors in the relevant time frame and took affirmative steps to conceal the abuse."
The Archdiocese denies it had any knowledge of the alleged abuse before Trent came forward last year.
"Father Dennehy passed away on April 10, 1999," said spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta. "No other allegations have been reported against Father Dennehy."
Yet Church officials haven't exactly defended Dennehy, either.
"The alleged victim spoke five times to the Archdiocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator and was offered counseling that would be paid for by the Archdiocese of Miami," Agosta said in a written statement.
Trent's lawsuit claims Dennehy molested and sodomized him many times, all while warning that "if Willard told anyone about the abuse, he would be damned to burn in Hell or a lake of fire":
As part of the deviant sexual abuse, Father Dennehy made Willard... dress in a girl's uniform from Cardinal Gibbons High School, and then sodomized him.
At some point during the abuse, Dennehy introduced Willard to another priest, who began sexually abusing Willard as well. On multiple occasions, this second priest sodomized Willard.
Dennehy repeatedly threatened Willard that if Willard told his parents about the sexual contact, no one would believe him and he would be punished.
According to the lawsuit, when a nun grew suspicious of the priest, "Father Dennehy began chaining the doors together so no one would interrupt future incidents of abuse."
Trent's lawyer, Jeffrey Herman, criticized the Archdiocese's reaction after his client first came forward a year ago.
"Unfortunately, nothing has happened since then," he said. "The Archdiocese has not gone to the various schools or parishes where Father Dennehy worked and asked for anyone with information on Father Dennehy to come forward and, if they were victimized, to get help."
Agosta denied that the Archdiocese had dragged its feet in tending to possible victims of sexual abuse.
"As always, the Catholic Church's concerns are for the victims and a prevailing sense of justice," she said. "Over these past eight years, the Archdiocese has been forthcoming and taken steps to keep our children safe through training and background screenings."
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and an abuse victim himself, said that it's not unheard of for victims to suppress memories of abuse for years, even decades.
"Disclosing the horrific pain is the first step towards getting better," he said.
Clohessy and Herman called on Archbishop Thomas Wenski -- appointed in April to replace Archbishop John Favalora -- to do more to address and investigate past abuses in the Miami area. According to abuse watchdog website BishopAccountability.org, at least 32 Miami-area priests have been accused of sexual abuse.
"We call upon the Miami Archbishop to get out from behind his desk, shove his defense lawyer aside, ignore his PR person, and to act like a compassionate shepherd, not a cold-hearted CEO, and to every place where Father Dennehy worked and beg victims and witnesses to come forward," Clohessy said.
Although the lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $5 million, Trent says his true goal is to reach out to other victims and prevent future abuse.
"I would not like to see this happen to any child ever again," said the 55-year-old in a wavering voice, flanked by his mother, outside the church where he says he was abused.
"It sticks with you your entire life," he said. "It haunts you."