|Embattled Priest Back after Three Years
By Karen Keller
August 23, 2007
Clifton — After a three-year absence from the pulpit, a Catholic priest accused of fondling a boy decades ago has been reinstated.
The Diocese of Paterson conducted a tribunal, conferred with Rome, then declared the priest innocent last week, said Marianna Thompson, communications director for the diocese.
The Rev. Andrew Peretta, 59, of Sacred Heart Church on Randolph Avenue, gave his first Mass after the leave of absence Thursday of last week, he said by telephone Tuesday.
"It was very difficult," he said, declining further comment.
Thompson cited ramped-up efforts by the Catholic Church over the past decade to improve its public image following publicized cases of priests committing child abuse, including working with the Attorney General's Office to ensure any criminal allegations of priests are reported to the local prosecutor immediately, and a mandatory workshop called "Protecting God's Children" to teach diocese employees and volunteers how to recognize and report sexual abuse.
Though the tribunal wasn't open to the public, its structure is the same as that used in European civil courts, she said. An advocate for victims of priest abuse of children questioned the objectivity of the tribunal.
Allegations against Peretta were set in motion in 1996. That year, a man in his 20s, John Masker, told the diocese that Peretta had touched him inappropriately over a several-year period when he was a boy. The diocese decided at that time that the allegation was not credible.
The Passaic County Prosecutor's Office was informed of the allegation in 2002, following passage of a new charter by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which clarified that all allegations of abuse to the diocese should be forwarded to the appropriate county prosecutor, Thompson said.
But the prosecutor's office didn't investigate because the statute of limitations had passed, she said.
In 2004, when Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli was appointed as head of the diocese, he reviewed the allegation and found it credible.
Serratelli had reopened several cases of alleged priest sexual abuse of minors and sent them to Paterson's Diocesan Review Board, a special committee designed to review cases of child abuse. The board sent some of the cases to Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for further review. Rome then ordered a tribunal for some of those cases, including Peretta's, Thompson said.
While under investigation, Peretta received a stipend, he said, but was not allowed to live in the church-owned property and could not participate in church activities.
Efforts to reach Masker for comment were unsuccessful.
In 2004, Masker told the Herald News that the alleged abuse began in 1979, when he was 9, and continued until he was 16. He said that he waited 10 years to speak up because Peretta was a close family friend.
Making up the tribunal are three judges, a canonical advocate representing the alleged victim and a promoter of justice who presents the facts, according to Thompson. The judges are priests from outside the Paterson diocese. The other two members of the tribunal must hold canonical law degrees and may or may not be priests, Thompson said. Evidence used in the tribunal includes documents and sometimes witness testimony.
Thompson said she wasn't sure if the alleged victim testified in Peretta's case.
Mark Crawford, co-director of the New Jersey chapter of The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, questioned the fairness of the tribunal.
"It's clerics clearing clerics. The whole process is not objective," said Crawford, who said he was abused by a priest when he was younger.
Peretta's title is parochial vicar, a position which assists the pastor. He said he's lived in Clifton for 14 years and had previously served at Paterson's St. Mary Help of Christians R.C. Church for 18 years. He was ordained in 1974, Thompson said.
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