Volume 75, Number 18 | September 21 - 27, 2005

Our Lady of Pompei Church at Carmine and Bleecker Streets

Woman charges rape in tangled affair with priest

By Lincoln Anderson

A woman who said she turned to the former pastor of Our Lady of Pompei Church for spiritual guidance is claiming he met her need with what she at first believed to be “spiritual hugs” but that these embraces quickly went beyond the religious and became rape.

Leslie Fray is charging that Father Joseph Cogo, former pastor at the Carmine Street church, raped her at least three times. The incidents happened almost 30 years ago, when Fray, then a recent Yale graduate and convert to Catholicism, came to Greenwich Village. Fray, now 51, says she was beset by delayed-onset post-traumatic stress syndrome stemming from the alleged rapes and that it wrecked her life.

She says the recent media coverage of lawsuits against pedophile priests, her own growing awareness of what happened to her and wanting to inform others who may have had similar experiences are compelling her to tell her story now.

In June of 2004, Fray filed a complaint with the Manhattan district attorney and the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. The same week, she met with the superior of the Pious Society of the Missionaries of Saint Charles Borromeo, otherwise known as the Scalabrian order, with which Our Lady of Pompei is affiliated. The following month, Cogo was asked to step down as head pastor at the Village church. Three months later, he was transferred to Caracas, Venezuela, to head the Our Lady of Pompei Church there, also part of the Scalabrians’ order.

Fray is seeking a financial settlement from the Scalabrian brothers. Initially, she asked for $2 million, but she has since decided she is owed more. A year later, she is getting ready to sue for monetary damages if a settlement is not reached soon.

“I’m asking $27 million, because it was 27 years of being a vegetable,” Fray told The Villager in a recent interview. “I couldn’t practice [archaeology], no career, children. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t get close to people because of the abuse.”

Speaking from Caracas, Cogo, 71, denied the accusations. He said Fray is disappointed with how her life turned out, and now with the Catholic church beset by lawsuits, has seen an opportunity to cash in.

“There was no abuse,” he said. “I was imprudent — of course I was. When you deal with young people who are in need you go possibly a little bit further than you should. You hug, certainly — but nothing more than that.”

However, Fray tells a different story. She said it’s only within the last two years in therapy that she’s come to the realization that Cogo raped her in a case of what she said her therapist describes as “classic abuse.”

When she came to the Village, she was an earnest cum laude Ivy League grad and a recent convert from what she calls “so-called Episcopal.” She said she had been impressed by a devout Catholic philosophy professor and felt she could find strength in the church’s sacraments and confession and its greater structure.

After having spent a year abroad in Italy, she hoped to deepen her faith and practice her Italian in the Our Lady of Pompei parish while waiting for grants she had applied for to study Doric columns in southern Italy.

“I thought — the Village, there were Italians,” she recalled. “At this church there were Italian priests, so I thought, perfect, I can keep my Italian.” She would often speak the language with Cogo when they were talking together.
I
n Cogo, she thought she had found “a bridge — he’s my alter Christus.” Yet, she says, her faith was abused.

“I saw Cogo and he saw an opportunity — he pounced,” she said. “Being a Yalie, I guess, I thought I was strong. I didn’t see cause to report [it]. I was a child really. I thought Cogo was a priest — and really to trust.”

The hugs Cogo gave her she thought were the traditional church “peace greeting.”

“It was a hug situation, but he went beyond,” she said.

After she told him she was new to the parish and seeking spiritual counseling, Cogo, wearing his priest’s collar, came over to her Thompson St. apartment. There was the hug and then, Fray says, Cogo had intercourse with her.

“He said it would help, it was what I needed and it was sanctioned on high. He said, ‘This is actually O.K., in the order and by God — and this will help you.’

“Cogo seemed very experienced — the first meeting in my apartment he had a condom,” she said.

Birth control, of course, goes against the teachings of the church.

“It’s not Catholic doctrine — but I’m glad,” she said. Nevertheless, she recalled walking the streets of the Village and fearing she might have been pregnant.

The pattern replayed a few more times. Afterwards, she claims Cogo would call her from the priory and engage in “phone sex.”

Despite the alleged rapes, Fray did not sever contact with Cogo, feeling she could “shirk his advances and just relate to him spiritually, as he was a priest.” He invited her out to dinner a few times and she went, feeling it was safe to be with him in public. On one occasion, she invited Cogo to accompany her to the Yale Club.

“I thought Cogo was the problem — and that he was the answer,” she said. “He had kind of brainwashed me — seducing. He was this Italian. I had spent my junior year in Italy.” Cogo was helping her get a visa to do archaeology work in Italy, she added.

According to an 11-page report she wrote on her relationship with Cogo, Fray said he tried to have sex with her several more times, without success. Once he took her to what Fray describes as “a sleazy Midtown hotel” and asked for sex, but she said no. Another time, she claims he threw her down on the floor in a rundown Midtown office, but she wrenched free and left. In the report, Fray said she was offended that Cogo didn’t want to talk, just wanted sex.

Once after having led a morning Mass, she says, Cogo tried to have sex with her in the priory — the priests’ residence adjoining the church. She recalls walking past a long table where a priest eating breakfast did not bat an eye as they passed, then going up in a narrow, European-style elevator that opened into Cogo’s apartment. Inside, as Fray recalls it, was a “huge,” double-width bed resembling a high hospital-style bed. She also remembers that left casually on the floor in a closet was a sculpture she had made that she had given Cogo to take care of.

“I said, ‘No. You defiled my apartment. Now you want me to defile your room,’ ” Fray recalled. “I went down in the elevator and went out.” On one occasion, Cogo did succeed in performing a sex act on Fray but she says she was “grossed out.”

Regarding the encounters at Fray’s apartment, Cogo acknowledges there were maybe two or three “hugs.” But he denies rape.

“That’s absolutely out of her mind,” he said. “It’s a pack of lies. She’s building up a case. You try to do your best — and look what happens. You hug a girl to help her because she’s down — that’s what you try to do. But there was no abuse — crazy. She would tell me her experience, what she was doing, that kind of stuff. A few times I went to her place too — but it was all in good terms.”

Cogo admits he was transferred because of Fray’s accusations. He was sent south “to be out of the scene, because they knew she would start something,” he said. “They tell you, ‘Look, go someplace else.’ ”

Fray says she also saw the priest for dinner in Italy in 1982 when she was working as an archaeology fellow near Naples and Cogo was in Italy assessing earthquake damages; afterwards, Cogo wanted sex and she again rejected him, she says. In 1983, she went to see Cogo in New York — “Somehow I thought he could help me with my present ills,” her report says. She met him at the American Committee on Italian Migration, where he was then executive national secretary. She claims he led her into a hall and fondled her breasts, and she ran out of the office.

In the years after the alleged rapes and sexual abuse, as her health declined, Fray says she was told she might have Parkinson’s disease or be schizophrenic. She became anorexic.

But recently she’s begun to improve, she said. She takes a small amount of psychotropic medication but is being weaned off it. She has rededicated herself to painting, which she studied in college. Her self-portraits are oddly masculine looking, but she explains this as part of the slow process of reconnecting with her femininity after her ordeal. She now works as a private nurses’ aide, feeling that as she is heeling she can help others heel.

Growing up in an affluent family in the Pacific Northwest, she admits she was sheltered and “had a child’s notion of affection” as a young woman. Her only prior sexual experience had been in college when a boy she liked forced himself on her in what she also now realizes was a rape. Her father also sexually abused her as a child, she says. Yet, it’s Cogo she feels who affected her so profoundly.

“I went away from my body — because I wanted what he had done to go away,” she said. “I’ve been basically numb from the breast down. I’m regaining feeling — it’s working. I lost years, but I feel that my resurrected self is better than before.”

Cogo, for his part, downplays any relationship. Asked for example, if he and Fray ever went to the so-called “sleazy hotel,” he said, “No, no.”

He denied he ever wanted to have sex in the priory.

How about the time Fray says they went together to the Yale Club?

Cogo thought for a moment: “Yale Club, she said? I don’t remember — It’s possible.”

The Scalabrian order was established around the turn of the century to minister to Italian immigrant communities in North and South America. The Province of the Society of Saint Charles Borrromeo — whose territory includes the Eastern United States, Eastern Canada, the Caribbean, Haiti, Colombia and Venezuela — is headquartered on Carmine St. next to Our Lady of Pompei. Father Joseph Fugolo recently took over as superior of the province.

“I know that there is that kind of accusations she is making,” Fugolo said. “We don’t believe it was rape the way she has been describing things.” He noted he was only appointed superior a few months ago and wasn’t around in 1977 when the alleged incidents occurred. But he said, “We are denying the fact that this was rape. I never met her personally. I’m not aware of any particular wrongdoing. This person, I don’t know, maybe she felt rejected. We don’t intend to give the $2 million unless she can prove she was really raped.

“If she was really raped, then Father Cogo was wrong,” Fugolo continued. “It’s inexcusable.” However, he added, “She was not a child. You’re talking about a few years ago, so they were consenting adults. I don’t think Father Cogo — he’s not the type. He’s a very cordial person.... Father Cogo is denying completely rape or affairs.”

Not only is rape a crime, but having sex violates the vow of chastity, which along with poverty and obedience, comprise the three vows.

“If he did it, then he violated the vow of celibacy, for sure. If he forced her against her will, it’s rape,” said Fugolo. “To rape a person is something inconceivable,” he added. “For us it’s even worse.” Rape and pedophilia are sicknesses that have no place in the priesthood, he said.

Is the vow of celibacy just too hard to keep?

“Of course it’s difficult,” said Fugolo. “If you feel you can’t take it — don’t be a priest. Get married.”

In fact, in the early 1970s, the then pastor of Our Lady of Pompei, Father James Albano, did leave the church and priesthood to marry Carol Cecchia, the Our Lady of Pompeii School secretary.

Timothy O’Neill, an attorney representing the Scalabrians, said there’s no case because Fray hasn’t filed suit.

“Obviously, these are serious allegations,” he said. “If it comes to litigation, we would defend this vigorously — and there are very, very good defenses here. Speaking on behalf of the Scalabrians, there is no merit to the case.”

O’Neill noted there was an attempt to make what is known as a pastoral response to Fray, in which the church offers help or counseling.

The Catholic Archdiocese had some influence in the decision for Cogo to be barred from leading the Greenwich Village church, but since the Scalabrians are an order within the archdiocese, the archdiocese would not be the target of a potential lawsuit.

“When the credible allegation came in last year, we approached the superior of the Scalabrians and asked him to remove Father Cogo, at least as pastor, until the matter was resolved,” said Joe Zwilling, archdiocese spokesperson. Zwilling said the archdiocese “removed the faculties” of Cogo, meaning he could not function as a priest in the archdiocese of New York. “If he was exonerated from the allegations, then his faculties would be restored,” Zwilling noted. He added the archdiocese hasn’t made a determination as to whether the allegations are true, though they “have a plausibility that would need to be investigated. We took her complaint seriously,” he said.

One longtime Our Lady of Pompei congregant, who requested anonymity, said the buzz around the church when Cogo was sent packing to Caracas was that there had been “a recurring affair” between him and a woman.

“To me, it smelled like a rat,” she said. “You don’t pull a guy like that who’s 70 years old, who just had a hip replacement and send him to Venezuela.” Referring to Father Albano’s affair of the early 1970s, she said, “It was already a precedent. This is a repeat pattern.”

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