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  Church Abuse Settlement Dismays Priest's Supporters
Defenders Say Woodbridge Cleric Betrayed

By Judy Peet
Star-Ledger [New Jersey]
February 2, 2003

Kathy Dowling can't stop crying. Her husband Bill says he is frustrated and just plain mad.

The Dowlings are the kind of people who are the backbone of every church: They lead prayer groups, teach the catechism, arrange baptisms, help administer the sacraments and head leadership groups.

When the church calls, they answer. But last week, they say, the Catholic church let them down.

"Without giving us a word of warning, or even consideration, the diocese in effect announced that Father Mike is guilty," said Bill Dowling, "That's not true. And it's not right."

Father Mike is Monsignor Michael Cashman, 52, a former spiritual adviser to Gov. James McGreevey and a Catholic leader whose future in the church was placed in limbo nine months ago, when he was accused of sexually abusing a former parishioner and her teenage son and daughter more than 20 years ago.

Ever since Cashman was removed from the pulpit of St. James Church in Woodbridge, parishioners such as the Dowlings have been expecting his vindication and praying for his return.

Those hopes were crushed last week when the Diocese of Metuchen reached a settlement with 10 current and former parishioners who claim they were sexually abused by five Catholic priests.

The settlement -- the first of its kind in a New Jersey diocese since the national priest sex scandal broke a year ago -- was hailed by victims' rights groups as a gesture of compassion.

None of the priests admitted wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

In agreeing to pay $800,000 in total to the victims, Metuchen Bishop Paul Bootkowski included Cashman in the company of convicted children molesters such as the Rev. John M. Banko of Milford and Michael Santillo, a former Perth Amboy priest who died three years ago in prison.

There lies the rub for the Dowlings and the reportedly more than 1,000 other St. James parishioners who have signed petitions supporting the popular priest's return to the church.

"I feel betrayed by the bishop," said Donna Hugelmeyer, who organizes prayer groups for St. James. "Father Mike was lumped together with those horrible people, and of course people now think he's guilty.

"I believe the bishop was in a very difficult situation and made his decision only after lots of prayer. But he sold Father Mike down the river."

Members of St. James said they are frustrated because they were never told the nature of the accusations against Cashman or his defense -- Cashman has steadfastly maintained he is innocent.

They also acknowledged that the settlement has widened a schism in St. James between those who still believe in Cashman and those who don't or who are tired of waiting for the matter to be resolved.

Further exacerbating the situation are recent statements by Cashman's lawyer, Raymond Gill, alleging that the monsignor was coerced into agreeing to the settlement.

"The only reason we signed off on it, we were told there would be no finding of fault, and that if we didn't sign off, it would affect father's chances for reinstatement," Gill said.

Gill said he was pressured to settle by diocesan independent counsel Anthony LaRocco, a claim vehemently denied by LaRocco.

"That is absolutely false," LaRocco said. "There was no statement by me or any other representative of the diocese indicating, implying or alluding to" Cashman's future status as a priest. "It was his own decision."

Cashman declined to be interviewed, as did his accusers and the bishop.

The pastor's phone at St. James still has Cashman's distinctive Irish voice on the answering machine. It is an eerie message, promising Cashman will get back to the caller as soon as possible, an activity he has been barred from since last April.

Some parishioners -- who are considering a protest march on diocesan headquarters in Metuchen in support of Cashman -- said they were shocked to learn about the settlement in the press.

"Does it mean he is guilty? How can they know if the prosecutor doesn't even know yet?" said Dowling, referring to an ongoing investigation by the sex crimes unit of the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office into all allegations made against priests in the Diocese of Metuchen.

The investigation began last fall and was supposed to be finished by Christmas. It is still ongoing, although diocese spokesman Ronald C. Rak said the diocese anticipates results shortly.

Rak, general secretary for administration and legal services for the diocese, stressed that the settlement and the criminal investigation are two distinct, separate approaches to the allegations.

The county investigators are trying to determine whether there is a basis for criminal charges against the priests and whether they fall within the statute of limitations. The civil litigation that produced the settlements last week was subject to different, more lenient standards of evidence.

In agreeing to the settlement, the diocese resolved its outstanding civil liability and avoided the potentially crushing financial burden of going to court. One civil suit involving a priest in the Camden Diocese has been in the courts since 1994 and has cost well over $1 million.

"We decided to settle in all the cases, including Monsignor Cashman's, on the recommendation of the diocesan response team," said Rak, referring to a special review committee that includes two church officials, a retired superior court judge, three physicians and a psychologist.

Rak said the team heard testimony from Cashman's alleged victims, as well as another woman who came forward later and said she had been molested by him as an adult. The group also interviewed Cashman and reviewed evidence in his defense presented by Gill.

Rak would not say whether the recommendations were unanimous in Cashman's or any other case.

"The settlement means there was a consensus among the team, but it does not represent closure in the case," said Rak, adding that Bootkowski still must decide whether to take action to permanently remove the accused priests from the church or reinstate them.

Only five priests were sued, but in a statement last summer, the diocese said that accusations of sexual abuse have been filed against 18 of its current and former priests.

Any criminal findings will be handled by the county. The bishop must still decided whether each priest should be returned to the fold or "laicized," a term referring to the removal of clerical status.

Such action could be voluntary, or the priest could face a church tribunal. These decisions could take months.

"For us in the diocese, this is just the first part of the process," Rak said. "At the end, and I don't know how long that will take, everything we know will be shared."
 
 
 

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