Where does the buck stop in the Archdiocese of Newark?

An Archdiocese of Newark pastor will be stepping down at the end of the month, after parishioners at St. Joseph's Church complained that an accused priest had been living in the rectory, just across the street from the parish elementary school. The accused priest, Fr. Robert Chabak, was removed from ministry in 2004, after the archdiocese determined that he had been credibly accused of molesting a boy over a period of three years in the 1970s (he was never charged because the statute of limitation had run). After Superstorm Sandy damaged Chabak's home, Mark Mueller reports, "the archdiocese allowed him to take up residence at St. Joseph 'out of a sense of compassion,' said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for Archbishop John J. Myers." Parishioners were not informed of Chabak's background. When several of them protested, Chabak, sixty-six, was moved to a retirement home. Why it was insufficiently compassionate to put him there first remains unclear. But what is clear is the frustration of Newark Catholic parents. Because when it comes to dealing with accused priests, their diocese is doing it wrong. 

Remember the disturbing case of Fr. Michael Fugee, the Newark priest who in 2001 admitted to molesting a minor before recanting the confession two years later (he just wanted to go home, he explained)? The judge found the confession "totally voluntary," and apparently the jury agreed, because Fugee was convicted of aggravated criminal sexual contact--only to have the conviction overturned on a technicality (the jury may have been prejudiced by Fugee's statements about his sexuality). Rather than face retrial, Fugee signed--as did the archdiocese--a legal agreement promising that he would undergo therapy for sex offenders and never "work in any position in which children are involved" (including "involvement with a youth group" and hearing "confessions of children").

Fugee was later found to have been working with youth groups and hearing the confessions of children--as recently as September 2012. He was also serving as a chaplain at St. Michael's Medical Center, an appointment Archbishop Myers made without informing hospital administration of Fugee's background.  In a February letter to his priests, Myers wrote that "the recommendations of the county prosecutor regarding Fr. Fugee's...future assignments in ministry carried great weight. We have followed those recommendations fully." 

After news broke about Fugee's work with children, Myers--through his spokesman--struggled to keep his story straight. First he claimed Fugee never violated the agreement. You see, the "memorandum of understanding" says Fugee can have no unsupervised contact with minors. Ignoring the part of the agreement that rules out hearing "confessions of children," Myers's spokesman explained that even while Fugee was hearing kids' confessions, supervisors were nearby. "He has done nothing wrong," Goodness told the Star-Ledger in late April. That makes it sound like the archdiocese approved of that behavior. But just a few days later, on May 2, the archdiocese did a 180: "[Fugee] engaged in activities that the archdiocese was not aware of and that were not approved by us, and we would never have approved them because they are all in conflict with the memorandum of understanding," according to Goodness. So the archdiocese was not aware of Fugee's work as confessor to minors, but it did know that when he heard kids' confessions he was being supervised? Then on May 22, after Fugee had been arraigned on seven counts of judicial contempt for violating the memorandum of understanding, the archdiocese issued another statement, this one sounding a different tone: 

When the Archdiocese learned of Father Fugee’s violation of certain of its protocols during his off-hours, he was informed there would be significant consequences. Nothing is more sacred than the welfare of our children.  We are in the process of taking steps to ensure that, as much as humanly possible, this type of thing cannot happen again.

So Archbishop Myers went from denying Fugee had done anything wrong to admitting that he "may have violated a lifetime ban on ministry to minors" over the course of about three weeks. 

Was Fugee informed of these serious consequences before or after Archbishop Myers's spokesman defended his hearing kids' confessions? And what is this type of thing, exactly? A priest confessing to the police that he molested a minor, then taking it back, then being convicted of the crime, then having it overturned, then entering into an agreement that sounds a lot like an admission of guilt? This isn't exactly what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had in mind when it ratified its Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002--a year before Fugee was convicted--which holds that a priest must be permanantly taken out of ministry for a even single act of sexual abuse of a minor that has been "admitted or established." (Myers helped draft it.) The bishops didn't foresee the Fugee maneuver. But is it really so difficult to comprehend the plain English of the memorandum of understanding? No work in any position in which children are involved. Fugee's assignment as a hospital chaplain was A-OK, according to Myers's spokesman, "because there are no pediatric services" at the facility. Has Archbishop Myers ever been to a hospital? Children have been known to visit sick relatives. 

Similarly skewed reasoning landed Myers in hot water again in the Chabak case. The archdiocese reportedly approved his move to a parish with an elementary school "out of a sense of compassion." But compassion for whom? The priest who had been removed from ministry in 2004 because the archbishop believed he had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor. Did no one think that it might be wiser to bypass the risk of scandal--and the risk to children--and put Chabak in a retirement home in the first place? 

The Chabak case bears another striking resemblance to Fugee's: Someone other than the archbishop took the blame. The pastor of the parish where Chabak had been residing will lose his post come August. Yes, he and Chabak are friends (voting records show they resided at Chabak's house). But the archdiocese reportedly knew about Chabak's new digs and didn't sack anyone until parishioners started making noise. Likewise, until the Star-Ledger began reporting on Fugee's kid-proximate ministrations, the archdiocese was content with his assignment as a hospital chaplain. (Although, again, the archdiocese did not think it necessary to let the hospital administration in on Fugee's past.) Once it became clear that the story wasn't going away, Archbishop Myers took action--by firing his vicar general, Msgr. John Doran. It was Doran, not Myers, who signed the memorandum of understanding as a representative of the Archdiocese of Newark. 

Doran's replacement, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, allegedly failed to act on a mother's complaint that a priest had sexually abused her twin sons. Spokesman Jim Goodness told the Jersey Journal that the archdiocese had "immediately" forwarded her allegations to prosecutors in Bergen and Essex Counties, yet the Essex prosecutor had no record of the complaint. "Maybe they lost them," Goodness said. "I will resend." That was last month. The mother says she came forward four years ago. "We have acted appropriately here in this matter, as we do consistently," Goodness told the Journal. The archdiocese has an agreement with the state attorney general to forward all allegations to county prosecutors. "Every one of the prosecutors with whom we deal...knows that the archdiocese reports accusations as soon as we receive them," Myers wrote in May. Apparently without verifying receipt.

In that February letter to priests, Myers complained that the media hadn't been presenting a full account of the facts related to Fugee and the way the archdiocese has handled abuse allegations. But without the work of the press, would Newark Catholics have any idea about Fugee's ministry to minors? Would they know that the archdiocese had allowed an accused priest who was removed from ministry nearly ten years ago to reside at a parish with an elementary school?

Would they have learned that in 2004, as reported by the Star-Ledger, the archdiocese wrote letters to six dioceses in Florida about a priest who had been accused of breaking into a woman's home and possibly "having physical contact with her"--without mentioning the accusation? Fr. Wladyslaw Gorak was on medical leave, the letters said, but "continues to enjoy the faculties of the Archdiocese of Newark"? (He later pleaded guilty to assault.)

Would parishioners have learned that Fr. Daniel Medina had admitted to "inappropriately plac[ing] a young boy on [his] lap"? The Archdiocese of Newark did not inform Medina's parishioners when he pleaded guilty in 2006. Nor did it alert parishioners the following year, when the review board decided that the accusation was credible (right on schedule). Nor did it warn parishioners in 2008, when the archdiocese lost track of Medina. Instead, the archbishop alerted his brother bishops that Medina was missing and was barred from ministry. The only reason Medina's former parishioners found out about him was that SNAP got hold of the alert Myers sent the bishops. The Star-Ledger reported that too.

Archbishop Myers wants his people to believe that "the archdiocese has an exemplary record of addressing allegations against our clergy." He "want[s] our procedures to be among the strictest in the entire Catholic Church." He tells Newark Catholics that "we also have strong policies and procedures in place to ensure that our very strict protocols are followed." But they aren't. If they had been, Fugee never would have been assigned to a hospital--with or without pediatric services. He never would have been in possession of a card he could produce for reporters--or parishes, or retreat centers--naming him a priest "in good standing." Fr. Chabak never would have been allowed to sleep at a parish across the street from its elementary school. The archdiocese wouldn't send vaguely supportive-sounding letters to another diocese about a priest they knew had been accused of breaking into a woman's home and possibly assaulting her. Nor would it keep a priest's guilty plea from his parishioners for years.

These may be lapses in policy. But more than that they are lapses in judgment, failures of culture. If your bishop is asked by an attorney whether he recalls that one of his priests admitted to groping a child, and his response is, "Unfortunately, without his lawyer present, he did," he probably needs to be reminded what happened to the church in 2002. (Of course, if that bishop was one of the drafters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' new and improved sexual-abuse policy, you may wonder whether there is a deeper problem.) 

But even if leaders of the Archdiocese of Newark struggle to see why Catholic parents are worried about their oversight of abusive priests, there is another compelling reason to straighten up: fiduciary responsibility. California is facing another bill that would relax the statute of limitations, and expose the Catholic Church to more lawsuits. That could revive a bill that would expand New Jersey's statute of limitations on sexual-abuse lawsuits, which stalled last year. I can't imagine the possibility doesn't weigh on the minds of New Jersey's bishops. 

"This is among the most sacred responsibilities that I share with the other honorable, dedicated clergy within our archdiocese," Archbishop Myers wrote in May. What does the archbishop believe taking responsibility means? Firing his vicar for clergy when the public learns a priest who shouldn't have been ministering to minors was freely doing so? It may be the case that Myers did not know how his underlings were handling or mishandling accused priests, but that too is a failure of leadership. And, ten years after Dallas, a cause for scandal.

(I'm grateful to Mark Silk for keeping track of the Fugee case. Archdiocese of Newark spokesman Jim Goodness did not reply to my request for comment.)

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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