Diocese Dumps Cleared Priest: Father James Vows to Fight Order; Parishioners Rally to Aid
By Jack Knarr
February 12, 2006
HAMILTON -- Trenton Bishop John F. Smith has withdrawn his support of Father James Selvaraj and instructed the guest priest to return to his home parish in India.
But Father James has vowed to fight and stay.
The shocking news was contained in a letter from Bishop Smith that was read to stunned parishioners at 5 o'clock Mass yesterday at St. Raphael's Church in Hamilton where the priest has served for the past year.
On Feb. 1, Father Selvaraj had just been cleared by a Mercer County grand jury on allegations he inappropriately touched a little girl last year at church -- touched her hand to guide it as she wrote in Swahili on the blackboard.
And last Wednesday night, 400 parishionersgathered at St. Raphael's to celebrate Father Selvaraj's clearance of the criminal charges in a joyful prayer gathering.
At the end, according to parishioner Lou Monticchio, "Father Selvaraj said, 'St. Raphael's is my home, and I belong here. I belong with you!'
"And the whole place just erupted!"
Last night, Diocesan spokesman Steven Emery had no comment, but he did read Smith's letter to The Trentonian:
"Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ, Aware of confusion and varied opinions within your parish community, I'm writing to make clear that Father James Selvaraj will not be returning to St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish nor be reassigned within the Diocese of Trenton.
"Although many are grateful for the service Father James rendered while he was here, he is not a priest of the Diocese of Trenton. He belongs to the Diocese of Tuticorin in India and has been a guest priest assisting us with the permission of his proper bishop in India and with my approval.
"I have withdrawn my approval and instructed Father James to return to the Diocese of Tuticorin in India to receive a pastoral assignment from his proper Diocesan bishop, the Most Reverent F. J. Amalnather.
"His bishop in India has been informed of this decision, and will welcome Father James back to the Diocese of his ordination and continuing incardination.
"I'm grateful for all your prayers and assistance during this difficult period," Bishop Smith's letter concluded. "I know your prayers and gratitude go with Father James as he returns home to the service of his Diocese."
After the reading of the letter following Mass,parishioners reacted with disbelief and anger at the news, shouting, "Traitor!" and "Why are you doing this to a man who's been proven innocent?!" according to a parishioner who requested anonymity.
"People are very upset," she said. "You know, we did fund-raisers for the lawyer for Father James. This man has no money. It's already cost $18,000. And the lawyer really dug deep, and he found nothing. He did nothing!"
Parishioner Lou Monticchio said Bishop Smith has chosen not to meet once with Father Selvaraj since the grand jury no-billed the charge against him.
The lawyer, Marc Fliedner, said Father James wants to stay at St. Raphael's. Fliedner read a statement on the priest's behalf:
"The Bishop's statement today was deeply disappointing, but unsurprising, in that this is the approach that has been taken by the Diocese of Trenton since the false allegation was first made," Fliedner said.
"Fortunately, the Roman Catholic Church has created procedures that afford a priest an opportunity to be heard before such an allegation results in his removal from active ministry.
"Father James is prepared to use these procedures to fight for the ability to continue his work at St. Raphael's-Holy Angels Parish."
Asked what those procedures are, Fliedner said they are covered by canon law within the church.
Monticchio said 650 petitioners originally signed a petition urging the diocese to keep Father James. He said the church has 4800 families, about a quarter of them regular attendees.
"I was shocked when I heard the letter being read," said Lori Hoos, music director. "I wasn't aware that [his removal] would take place at all, especially after Wednesday night. The show of support for Father James was phenomenal.
"And the peoples' reaction tonight was really one of disbelief and anger -- and a wonderful surge of energy to rally around Father James again," she said.
"We will find a way to support Father James. A church can't stand for things that aren't just and fair. You know?"
The grand jury heard arguments from the state on Feb. 1 when a decision was made to "no bill" the single count of endangering the welfare of a child, a spokeswoman for the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office said at the time.
No bill of indictment indicates that a majority of grand jurors found there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the case, said Casey DeBlasio.
DeBlasio said in a complaint dated Dec. 1, 2005, Selvaraj, 46, was charged with engaging in conduct which impaired or debauched the morals of an 11-year-old female.
The allegations stemmed for an incident last September at St. Raphael's-Holy Angels Parish where the priest was said to have inappropriately touched the child in a public setting at an after-care program, his lawyer Marc J. Fliedner said in a statement.
Fliedner suggested at the time that his client was victimized by people who didn't like the fact Selvaraj is a native of India.
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