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  Bishop Makes a Difference in Metuchen Diocese

By John A. Zukowski jzukowski@express-times.com
Diocese of Metuchen [New Jersey]
February 27, 2004

It was March 2002. Paul Bootkoski had just been formally installed as bishop of the Metuchen Diocese.

After a ceremony before hundreds of parishioners, Bootkoski stepped off a platform and into the lights of TV cameras.

It was at the height of revelations about priest abuse in Boston.

Reporters from local TV stations thrust microphones in his face.

They didn't ask questions about his goals, his background, or how he felt about being a bishop.

Instead, they fired questions at him about sexual abuse by priests.

Bootkoski walked away realizing something.

"I had to hit the ground running," he said. "I had no choice."

Bootkoski said the inspiration to confront the sex abuse scandal came from the Gospels.

But not from something deeply philosophical or theological. It came from something more practical.

"Jesus got his hands dirty," he said.

A year and a half after Bootkoski became bishop, several national groups call him one of the nation's leaders on confronting sex abuse in the church.

That's because the Metuchen Diocese -- comprised of about 520,000 Catholics in New Jersey, including Warren and Hunterdon counties -- has used tactics to handle the church's sex abuse crisis that very few dioceses have used. The diocese has also done some things no other in the country has tried.

Some observers say that what Bootkoski achieved in the Metuchen Diocese is important because the same thing can be done in other dioceses.

It takes just one person.

"In the Catholic Church the buck always stops with the bishop," said New Jersey Outreach Coordinator John Bambrick for SNAP, a victim advocacy group. "When bishops say they have to check with someone else, they're passing the buck. A bishop has the autonomy to make decisions for the entire diocese."

And the results of making policies to handle child abuse won't lead to repercussions, Bambrick said.

"Bishop Bootkoski wasn't banished and didn't fall off the face of the earth, and neither have other bishops who have led the way on this issue," Bambrick said.

So what has Bootkoski done to deserve such praise?

Listening to victims

The answers are in a few places.

The first is within the diocesan review board.

The Metuchen Diocese has a 12-person advisory board that examines sex abuse claims.

Metuchen is the only U.S. diocese with a member from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) on its review board.

It's common for diocesan officials to say they have an abuse victim on their review board. But there's a catch to that, Bambrick said.

"When you ask them if they have someone that's been a victim of clergy sex abuse, you find out that isn't the case," Bambrick said.

It's important to have a victim of clergy abuse because they understand its signs, Bambrick said.

The appointment also is an important one because it brings together two groups.

Sometimes relations between diocese and clergy abuse victims groups are fiery. Victims groups sometimes don't think dioceses are sensitive enough to victims. And dioceses are sometimes uncomfortable talking to victims' groups.

However, Bootkoski has maintained an ongoing dialogue with SNAP members. He sent two diocese representatives to a SNAP conference last spring. He said he would have gone himself if he didn't have a scheduling conflict.

Not every diocese has such close relations with SNAP, a 4,400-member group comprised of those who say they are victims of clergy sex abuse.

For decades most dioceses wouldn't even meet with SNAP members, Bambrick said.

However, that changed after the church's sex abuse scandal. More bishops will now at least talk with SNAP members or sex abuse victims, Bambrick said.

"It's become good public relations for dioceses to say that they've met with abuse victims," Bambrick said.

So SNAP members say they are becoming used to telling diocese officials their stories of clergy abuse. That can sometimes make bishops more sympathetic to victims.

But what's important is what happens after those meetings, Bambrick said, and how bishops respond to requests from SNAP members.

That's what makes Bootkoski different.

"Bootkoski asked us what we wanted to do, and we said we wanted a SNAP member on the review board, and he said 'yes' without any hesitation," Bambrick said.

Paying the price

Another thing that makes the Metuchen Diocese different is how it handled some sex abuse charges, Bambrick said.

When Bootkoski took over as bishop he had to confront a high-profile case of sex abuse.

It was a priest accused of abusing an 11-year-old altar boy in a Hunterdon County church.

In 1993, the Rev. John Banko took the boy into a storage room at St. Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic Church in Milford.

It was a small room where altar boys change into their robes before Mass. Banko closed the door and locked it. He ordered the boy to pull down his pants, and the priest performed oral sex on him, his accuser said. After the following week's Mass, Banko did the same thing again, the boy said.

Banko told the boy he'd harm his family if he ever told them, the boy later said.

The boy told no one until about six years later. While on a cruise, the boy had an emotional breakdown and told his girlfriend, court records stated. They later contacted the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office, which began an investigation in December 1999.

Banko was convicted in December 2002 on sexual assault charges and sentenced to 18 years in a state prison for sex offenders.

Bootkoski met with the victim, apologized and told him the steps he was taking to prevent further abuse. He also sent a diocesan official to the trial for support.

But abuse charges didn't end with that criminal case. And abuse cases didn't end with one abuse victim.

The former altar boy and other alleged abuse victims filed a suit against the Metuchen Diocese.

Nine other alleged victims came forward.

Allegations were made against Monsignor Michael Cashman of Woodbridge, who was once a spiritual adviser to Gov. James McGreevey, and against priests of parishes in Colonia, Somerset and Perth Amboy.

However, many of the cases fell outside New Jersey's two-year statute of limitations on personal injury claims. That put the allegations on shaky legal ground.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor's office in May 2003 concluded after a year-long investigation that it wouldn't file criminal charges. Some of the reasons were that the events were outside the statute of limitations and that some alleged abusers had since died.

But after meeting with the victims, Bootkoski decided to settle the suit for $800,000.

Metuchen paid the amount through diocese investments and not diocesan fund drives.

But that's not where the story was.

The difference was the diocese decided to pay the cost even though some of the allegations went back years, Bambrick said.

"That made it possible for legal loopholes, but Bootkoski did the morally right thing by settling," Bambrick said. "Many bishops will be very solicitous. But in the end they use hardball legal tactics to avoid paying money to victims."

It also saved abuse victims from testifying.

Bambrick believes that perhaps what sets Bootkoski apart from some other bishops is his reliance on spiritual advice rather than legal advice.

"In the past bishops have listened way too much to lawyers and acted more like corporate heads than pastors," Bambrick said. "That's why some people have said that diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but lawyers are a bishop's best friend."

-- -- --

A third thing that makes the Metuchen Diocese different on the sex abuse issue is someone in an office.

He's behind a desk at the diocesan headquarters in Piscataway, N.J.

Walk in and you'll see alongside the desk a small plaque. The words "We work for God" are on it.

But the plaque didn't come from a church. It came from a homicide department.

Behind the desk is Lawrence Nagle, the diocese director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection.

He explains the meaning of the plaque to a visitor. It was on his desk when he investigated murders.

"We did God's work because the victim wasn't around anymore and we were," Nagle said. "I worked for God in law enforcement and now I'm in the diocese doing God's work too."

Nagle packs some law enforcement experience. More than 20 years of it.

He formerly worked in the sex crimes, child abuse and Megan's Law units of the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office.

In his new job at the diocese, Nagle first responds to abuse allegations.

New Jersey law requires dioceses to report all abuse allegations to a prosecutor's office. But having someone with Nagle's police experience handle abuse reports is unique. His appointment may be the first of its type in the country.

"We realized from the outset that we are not skilled in investigating these matters," says Ronald C. Rak, general secretary of the Metuchen Diocese. "Now there is no buffer between the diocese and law enforcement."

Nagle handles all initial reports of abuse -- including those from the diocese Web site, which prominently features an option to report abuse.

"A lot of time it's in those critical first moments when someone makes a complaint that can determine where the investigation can go," Nagle says.

What Nagle represents is something that may be new for some dioceses. Something that some observers say can help repair some of the damage done from a flood of well-publicized abuse reports.

One local Catholic Church expert said that what outraged the public more than the abuse itself was the reports of covering up in the Archdiocese of Boston. The archdiocese gave the impression it played by different rules than the secular police world.

"The real scandal wasn't as much the abuse as bishops covering up the abuse and moving the priests from parish to parish," says DeSales University Theology Department Chairman Larry Chapp. "A single priest could molest hundreds of children. But the bishops didn't get rid of the bad priests."

Nagle's appointment may help merge two different worlds that previously were far apart.

A lifelong practicing Catholic, Nagle says he can merge those two worlds.

"I feel strongly about my faith, but I also feel strongly about the law," Nagle said.

 
 

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