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  Vatican Asked to Put Priest on Trial
Ex-Morristown Pastor Accused of Molesting Girl

By Abbott Koloff
Daily Record [New Jersey]
Downloaded October 5, 2003

Bishop Frank Rodimer has asked church officials in Rome to hear the case of a former Morristown pastor accused of molesting a child decades ago -- one of eight cases that Paterson Diocese officials say they are sending to the Vatican for some sort of determination.

They are among hundreds of cases sent there by Roman Catholic dioceses across the nation as part of the legal mechanism for determining the guilt or innocence of priests accused of sexually abusing children.

In a letter dated Aug. 1, Rodimer requested a trial in Rome for Monsignor John Henry Dericks, former pastor of Assumption parish in Morristown who has been accused of fondling a teenage girl decades ago at his home in Andover.

Rodimer said in the letter, sent to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, that Dericks, 87, has admitted having an affair with the girl's mother. The priest also admitted to having sexual relations with the mother at his home while the girl was in the house, according to the letter, but he denied having sexual contact with the teenager.

Church officials would not comment on the letter this past week but acknowledged that Dericks' case had been forwarded to Rome, along with other cases. Church legal experts say most cases are expected to be reviewed in Rome and then sent back to local dioceses for trials. Local church officials say that how long those cases will take to be processed is not clear.

Those found guilty of sexually abusing children either would be laicized, which means reduced to a lay state, or required to live a life of penance without identifying themselves as priests. Ken Mullaney, a diocese attorney, said the diocese would seek a life of penance for Dericks, if he's found guilty at a church trial, because of his age.

Based on the procedure in the Dericks case, how much of a role victims will have in the process is not clear. Cheryl Christopher, now in her 50s and living in Passaic, said she was allowed to review documents about her allegations that she was abused by Dericks when she was a teenager -- but only after they had been sent to Rome.

She received a copy of Rodimer's letter and said she was upset by the way she was portrayed. Rodimer characterized Christopher as "troubled" in the letter. He characterized Dericks as "beloved" and "revered," and said the Christian faithful have been "shocked and angered by these accusations."

"It's biased to make Dericks look good," Christopher said.

"The letter is filled with irrelevant praise for Dericks," said Buddy Cotton, head of a local chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Christopher said church officials told her Dericks was portrayed that way so officials in Rome would take the case instead of sending it back to the diocese, where it would be difficult to find impartial priests to sit on a tribunal to judge him. Rodimer wrote that "it has not been possible to prove the truth or falsehood" of the accusations.

"Since this is such a difficult case and because Monsignor Dericks is a revered priest of the Diocese of Paterson I am requesting that the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith call this case to itself for adjudication," Rodmer wrote in the letter.

Marianna Thompson, a spokeswoman for Rodimer, said last week that the diocese has sent, or is in the process of sending, eight cases to Rome. In addition to Dericks, she said, the cases of six other priests have been sent to Rome to determine what happens next.

Five of those priests worked at some point in Morris County: Ralph Sodano and Allen Stepien, both removed last year from Washington Township churches, James A. D. Smith, removed last year from a Roxbury church, Absalom Continuho, who had worked in Mount Olive and Boonton, and William McCarthy, recently retired from an East Hanover church.

In all of the cases, no criminal charges were filed because the statute of limitations had expired. Most of the cases had been examined by a diocesan review board, officials said, which determined allegations to be credible enough to take further action.

Church legal experts say most cases are expected to be reviewed in Rome, and then returned to local dioceses for church trials.

Thompson said the bishop also asked church officials in Rome to laicize a deacon accused of groping a young man more than 20 years ago. She said church officials tried to contact Robert Flavin, the deacon, and a former Delbarton School teacher, to ask him to agree to laicization. She said he didn't respond, so church officials moved to have him laicized involuntarily.

Bob Sheridan, who now lives in Morristown, said he told St. Mary's Abbey monks, who run Delbarton, in 1992 that Flavin groped him in 1981 when he was 18 years old and home from college. Flavin already had left Delbarton and the abbey, which is part of the Benedictine order and independent of the diocese.

Flavin later worked as a volunteer deacon at a diocese church, Resurrection parish in Randolph. Diocese officials have said that abbey officials did not tell them about the allegations. They said their decision to laicize Flavin came after they received a report from an abbey review board.

"I feel fantastic that this guy will never again be able to present himself as a religious figure," Sheridan said last week.

Sheridan said that some Delbarton alumni have refused to talk to him after he went public with his allegations last year. He also claims that abbey officials did not greet him with open arms last year when he went to them to find out why Flavin had been allowed to work at a diocese parish. Abbey officials have claimed that only one monk, a former abbot, knew about the allegations before last year. They did not return phone calls last week.

In contrast to Sheridan, who says the church's decision has given him some resolution, Christopher said she is unhappy with the way church officials presented her case to Rome. She claims that Rodimer's letter contained some false impressions and inaccuracies. The bishop wrote that her mother declined to cooperate with the investigation, for example, although, according to Christopher and her supporters, church officials later said that whether she was contacted is not clear.

The bishop's letter portrayed Christopher as a troubled person who suffers from mood swings. Her supporters say that doesn't present the entire picture. Christopher has at least one letter from a therapist stating that she suffers from problems rooted in being sexually abused. Some of Christopher's supporters said they would like to see that letter included in documents sent to Rome.

Christopher claims that her mother had an affair with Dericks in the 1960s and took her to the priest's Andover house when she was between the ages of 14 and 16 because he liked young people. She claims Dericks sometimes fondled her while he was in bed with her mother.

She went to the Paterson Diocese with that allegation 10 years ago. Dericks later gave her $25,000, out of his own pocket, to settle those claims, according to legal papers, but he did not admit that he was guilty of the charges. Rodimer mentioned the settlement in his letter to Rome.

"The payment of this sum is troubling and places the question of Monsignor Dericks' innocence under a cloud," Rodimer wrote.

Dericks declined to be interviewed about his case last week.

J. Michael Ritty, a canon lawyer identified by church officials as representing Dericks, along with several other Paterson Diocese priests, would not talk about any of the specific cases he is handling.

Ritty did say that he expects officials in Rome to make their first determinations on cases within the next few months. He said he expects some cases to be sent back to the diocese for trials, while others might be tried in Rome. Church officials also have the option to skip a trial, he said, and either administer punishment or dismiss cases.

In their first decision in such cases, officials in Rome recently dismissed an Ohio case without a trial.

Some of Christopher's supporters, including Cotton, say Dericks already appears to have admitted to a form of child abuse, since Rodimer's letter said he admitted to having sexual relations with her mother while the daughter was in the same house. They say Dericks' house, at the time, was a small cabin with an open loft area for sleeping.

"That's got to be traumatic for a 15- or 16-year-old," said Ann Zouvelekis, of Hanover, founder of a local chapter of Voice Of The Faithful, a national organization that discusses the future of the church.

Thompson, the bishop's spokeswoman, would not comment on whether the church would consider punishing Dericks for what he's admitted. She added that the church's definition of sexual abuse of a child does not require physical contact.

 
 

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