Victims SNAP into Action When the Church Won't

By Jeff Diamant
The Star-Ledger

December 14, 2008

Most nights, Mark Crawford will sit at his computer, type in names of Roman Catholic priests accused of abusing minors, and let internet search engines do their thing.

What he finds can help victims solve mysteries. A recent search for Joseph Michael Petralla, a former priest convicted of sex crimes against minors in Maryland, came up with an address in North Arlington. Leaflets in hand, he and other members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests notified neighbors of Petralla's record.

"Sometimes you find things Googling people's names," said Crawford, 46, who was abused by a priest as a teen. "I'm always reading through information, scouring anything current on clergy abuse. Sometimes we come across names that might have been here at one point but are now in another state."

Crawford and other members of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests say that in the aftermath of the clergy sex-abuse scandal that embroiled the Catholic Church in America in 2002, such work is vital. They say their neighborhood alerts reduce the odds that former priests who abused children can abuse again.

They also say that these efforts should not fall to them but to the dioceses that once employed the abusive priests and, in many cases, didn't alert police while crimes could have been prosecuted. The group also argues the dioceses' reluctance to notify the public about these priests is especially disheartening given their promises in 2002 to be "open and transparent" about sex abuse of minors by clergy.

"We're out there doing this because unfortunately the church won't," said Crawford, SNAP's New Jersey director. "As much as they (dioceses) say they want to be transparent, unfortunately transparency is still far, far removed from these situations."

Spokespeople for dioceses in New Jersey have long maintained that bishops have kept their promises about being open about problems.

Next month marks seven years since the Boston Globe published articles revealing the heights to which the Boston Archdiocese went to protect priests who abused children. The Globe's articles brought heightened scrutiny of bishops across the country.

The bishops, embattled, quickly approved a set of guidelines known as the "Dallas Charter," designed to remove even one-time abusers from ministry, prevent future clergy sex crimes against minors, and to spur church openness about abuse. Specifically, they promised to be "open and transparent" about clergy sex abuse of minors.

While the number of new allegations has since declined, SNAP members complain that dioceses still regularly fail to notify parishioners about abusive priests, and do not adequately ensure they are being supervised.

"Of all the promises in the Dallas Charter, the one about openness and transparency is the one that is taken least seriously by bishops," said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP. "It continues to be an attitude of, 'We'll be open only if and when we're forced to be, or we're caught.'"

James Goodness, a spokesman for Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, whose archdiocese includes Essex, Union, Hudson and Bergen counties, said the archdiocese typically notifies local law enforcement when an accused priest moves to a new neighborhood. He said he believes SNAP oversteps its bounds when it distributes leaflets by a priest or former priest's home.

"I think that SNAP is trying to assume certain law-enforcement responsibilities," Goodness said. "I do think they are walking a very fine line over privacy rights."

A spokesman for the Paterson Diocese, which includes Morris, Passaic and Sussex counties, declined to comment directly on SNAP's activity but released a prepared statement, referring to accused clergy, saying "the diocese is of the firm position that everyone has constitutional rights."

SNAP press conferences outside homes or offices of accused priests are common events. Members of SNAP, a nonprofit organization that draws its resources through donations and runs largely on volunteer work, typically distribute brochures detailing allegations, church disciplinary actions, and, when relevant, court convictions. This autumn, they have leafletted several times in New Jersey:

# On Sept. 14, SNAP passed out fliers in North Arlington, where Joseph Petralla had moved in with a relative. He had completed parole after serving an 18-month prison sentence in Maryland and, because his crime occurred in 1968, did not have to register under Megan's Law.

# On Sept. 15, SNAP passed out brochures at St. Mary's Hospital in Passaic about the Rev. Robert Yurgel, who had been a chaplain there from 1999 until this spring, when he was charged with having sex with a 14-year-old boy a decade ago in Charlotte, N.C. The case has not been resolved.

# On Nov. 12, SNAP leafletted streets near the Xaverian Missionary house in Wayne, where the Rev. Michael Tully had recently been staying. Tully pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct in 1992 after an incident in Wisconsin with three boys and alcohol, in which he grabbed one boy on the inner thigh. Other allegations of fondling led to at least one settlement with the Boston Archdiocese, according to the Dallas Morning News.

The priests were unavailable to comment for this story.

Widespread disagreement exists over whether, and when, dioceses should notify the public about accusations they deem credible, especially old ones that can not be prosecuted because of expired statutes of limitations, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of "Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church."

"On the other hand," said Reese, a fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C., "if someone has been convicted, under those circumstances often what bishops do is they go to the parish, apologize to the people, make it known, and invite anybody else to come forward if they were abused by this guy. This has become kind of the standard practice."

In September, SNAP became privy to an e-mail alert from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to 190 bishops across the country, in which the Newark Archdiocese warned that the Rev. Daniel Medina, who had worked in parishes in Elizabeth and Jersey City, was on administrative leave and forbidden from presenting himself as a priest.

SNAP members said they found it troubling that the alert was limited to bishops. "If they were concerned enough to alert other bishops," Crawford said, "they should also have alerted the communities where he ministered."

Crawford began researching. He learned that Medina, quietly charged in 2004 with first-degree sexual assault, had pleaded guilty in July 2006 to a reduced charge of fourth-degree child endangerment. He learned that two years after Medina's guilty plea, and nearly 12 months after the archdiocese review board deemed the accusation against Medina credible, Archbishop Myers still had not notified lay Catholics about any of those proceedings, or even acknowledged that the archdiocese believes Medina molested a boy.

SNAP held a press conference outside the archdiocese headquarters in Newark. Weeks later, in late September, the archdiocese alerted parishioners at Medina's former churches. Goodness has dismissed criticism of the delay, saying that only in late September was the timing right for the announcement. He said what was most important was the archdiocese's quick removal of Medina from ministry years ago when it first heard about the allegation.

Still, Crawford said he doesn't believe the archdiocese would ever have notified lay people about Medina had SNAP not publicly revealed the memo to other bishops. He said an earlier notification at churches might have spurred others to come forward during the heart of the archdiocese's investigation, rather than afterward.

"There's no way it should have taken two years to sort this one out," he said.

Crawford acknowledges that in its zeal to protect children and seek transparency, the group sometimes pushes boundaries, raising questions about the fitness of priests who have not been convicted in the legal system.

One such case played out last week, when Crawford and two other SNAP members held a press conference outside the Diocese of Trenton's headquarters in Lawrence Township to demand church officials "come clean" about a Monmouth County priest who works extensively in a parish elementary school.

In March, the priest was ticketed for loitering at a highway rest stop notorious for anonymous sexual encounters. At the time the summons was issued, State Police were conducting an operation aimed at stamping out lewdness at the service area, on the Garden State Parkway in Wall Township.

A month later, the ticket was dismissed in a plea deal in Wall Township Municipal Court.

Crawford nonetheless took up the case, saying he had been contacted by concerned parishioners who learned about the incident only months later from one of the troopers involved in the rest-stop operation. Crawford said the parish's members, in their quest to obtain more information, have been stonewalled by both the church and the diocese.

In a letter to Trenton Bishop John M. Smith, a lawyer working on behalf of the parishioners requested an investigation of the incident and public disclosure of what occurred that day.

"Please do not ignore the situation or sweep these facts under the rug," wrote the lawyer, Kevin J. Carlin. "Your assigned and moral duties as bishop of the diocese include the protection of all at risk in this situation."

In response to inquiries by The Star-Ledger, the diocese issued a statement noting the loitering case had been dismissed and that the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office had found "no evidence of indictable criminal conduct."

"The diocese is treating this as a personnel matter, and will continue to monitor the situation," the statement said.

Crawford makes no apologies for publicly naming the priest, insisting members of the parish deserve an explanation.

"He was at a rest stop during a sex sting, and they did give him a ticket for loitering," Crawford said. "I think parents have a right to know what he was doing. All we're asking for is the diocese to be transparent."


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