updated 5/18/2007 10:07:17 PM ET 2007-05-19T02:07:17

A jury found the nation's sixth-largest Roman Catholic diocese and a church parish negligent Friday in a case involving a youth minister who repeatedly raped and sodomized teenagers in his care.

The jury awarded two victims a combined $11.4 million in damages in one of the rare civil cases to go to trial in the wake of the nationwide sex abuse scandal that erupted five years ago.

The jury found that the Diocese of Rockville Centre, one of its churches and a pastor were also negligent in the hiring and retention of the youth minister.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Michael Dowd, said the decision — announced in a hushed Long Island courtroom — sends a powerful message to the Catholic Church. "The church can no longer be reckless in the safety of children," he said.

A spokesman for the diocese, Sean Dolan, declined to discuss the verdict. He said church officials hadn't decided whether to appeal.

The trial included graphic testimony by a female victim who told the jury that former youth minister Matthew Maiello seduced her and eventually had sex with her in a variety of locations on church property — including church pews and the elementary school principal's office, as well as at their homes.

The jury awarded the female victim about $5.5 million in damages and the male victim about $5.9 million. After the trial, the woman hailed the verdict as a vindication for her and other abuse victims.

"I'd just like to say that the reason for seeking justice in a civil trial was to ensure that the truth finally came out and that this might prevent the abuse from happening to children everywhere," she said.

The Associated Press generally does not name victims of sexual abuse.

Maiello served more than two years in prison
Maiello pleaded guilty to third-degree rape and sodomy in 2003 and served more than two years in prison, admitting he abused four children. But since Maiello did not contest any of the allegations, the focus of the monthlong trial became St. Raphael's Church in East Meadow, its pastor, the Rev. Thomas Haggerty, and the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

The two accusers said that starting when they were 15, they were repeatedly molested by Maiello, and that church officials failed to act when confronted by reports that the youth minister was acting inappropriately.

The two, now 23, said the abuse lasted three years, from 1999 to 2002. The woman testified that Maiello took her virginity in a basement office in the church convent and eventually cajoled her into having sex with the boy in the youth ministry. Before long, Maiello was engaging in three-way sex with the teenagers and videotaping other encounters.

"He would always tell me it was God's plan for us to be together," said the woman. "He controlled all of my thoughts — he manipulated me."

‘Who in God’s name would let this person work with kids?’
The plaintiffs' attorney, Michael Dowd, said Haggerty failed to check on Maiello's educational background and other qualifications for the $20,000-a-year youth ministry position.

"Who in God's name would let this person work with kids?" Dowd asked.

Brian Davey, a defense attorney representing the pastor, the parish and the diocese, insisted that Maiello alone was responsible for the sexual abuse.

"Matthew Maiello is a degenerate, is a deviant," Davey said. "He is 100 percent responsible."

The case is one of several civil lawsuits to arise from allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. But very few went to trial, and most were instead settled out of court.

Prosecutors said they were prevented from pursuing criminal charges because statutes of limitations had expired long ago.

The U.S. Conference of Bishops estimates abuse-related costs from lawsuits have exceeded $1.5 billion. On Long Island, a grand jury found nearly two dozen cases of abuse going back decades in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, with 1.3 million Catholics in 134 parishes.

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