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Update: North Plainfield Priest Removed from Parish Amid Sexual-Misconduct Allegations

By Mark Spivey
Home New Tribune
October 11, 2010

http://www.mycentraljersey.com/article/20101011/NEWS/101011046/Priest-removed-from-North-Plainfield-Catholic-church-due-to-sexual-misconduct-allegations

NORTH PLAINFIELD The Diocese of Metuchen is investigating allegations of sexual misconduct by St. Luke Parish Pastor Gregory Uhrig, who a little more than three years ago replaced another pastor who abruptly retired under similar circumstances.

Uhrig, 63, has been removed from service due to allegations that he sexually abused a minor approximately 30 years ago, while he was a priest with the Diocese of Allentown in Pennsylvania, according to a letter recently sent by Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski to the St. Luke congregation. Uhrig had replaced former St. Luke Pastor John Giordano, who retired after informing parishioners at the Clinton Avenue church that he didn't want similar allegations against him, claims he "categorically denied," to disrupt church operations.

Uhrig also is denying the allegations against him, but he was removed from service due to a church law that requires such a move as a precautionary measure when a claim of sexual abuse "has been deemed to have a semblance of truth," according to Bootkoski's letter.

TRIAL UPCOMING

The allegations first were brought to Bootkoski's attention several months ago by the Diocese of Allentown, which also notified law enforcement there, the letter indicated. Charges were not pursued because the statute of limitations had expired. A retired investigator from the Sex Crimes Unit in the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office examined the case, however, as the local Diocese Review Board interviewed both Uhrig and the accuser, according to the letter.

Bootkoski wrote that both the investigator and the board told him that the allegations "were not frivolous," adding that he accepted their conclusions.

"It is likely that the matter will finally be resolved by means of a canonical trial," Bootkoski wrote, adding that Uhrig is considered innocent until proven guilty and will continue to receive financial support from the diocese pending the trial.

Giordano in May 2007 told parishioners that he was retiring, effective immediately, after 30 years of service at St. Luke. Joanne Ward, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Metuchen, at the time said that the allegations against Giordano were reported to authorities and investigated by the Diocese Review Board more than two decades ago.

Bootkoski cited Giordano's case in his letter dated Saturday, expressing regret that "this is the second pastor who has left St. Luke Parish under suspicion of sexual misconduct."

"If there was anything in (Uhrig's) past that suggested he might be capable of inappropriate behavior, I would not have - I could not have - sent him to you," Bootkoski wrote.

According to a biography listed on RCNet, an organization that works to help Catholic churches in the U.S. enhance their online presence, Uhrig was born in Elizabeth, went to school in Reading, Pa. and attended seminary in Philadelphia and Rome. Uhrig served 20 years in the Allentown Diocese under no fewer than four titles before transferring to the Metuchen diocese, where he served in parishes in Metuchen, Bernardsville, Somerville and the Iselin section of Woodbridge Township, the biography indicated.

A ROCKY EXIT

Uhrig left Pennsylvania nearly 20 years ago following a very different controversy, according to a series of articles that appeared in The Morning Call of Allentown in 1993. Uhrig served four years as pastor of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Whitehall Township, an Allentown suburb of about 25,000 people, before a group of parishioners reportedly upset about his teachings and style led to his transfer to New Jersey, the articles indicated.

Uhrig's approximately 600-family congregation was sharply divided over him, according to the articles, as his final Mass with the church ended with a standing ovation, with pockets of people remaining seated. The controversy sparked national headlines after generating protests at the home of a Pennsylvania bishop, a full-page advertisement in The Morning Call and a near fracas at one Mass service.

Some of the trouble reportedly stemmed from Uhrig adhering to the guidelines of the Second Vatican Council, started in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, which encouraged interfaith tolerance and cooperation. It also relaxed some religious restrictions, such as eating meat on Fridays, and permitted Mass to be said in the language of the people rather than the traditional Latin.

Supporters of Uhrig credited him with revitalizing interest and participation in the church, the articles indicated, but critics called him a loose cannon. According to the articles, several dozen parishioners in 1991 filed a 12-page complaint against Uhrig to the diocese there, criticizing his decision to take young parishioners out to a field for their first confessions in a Communion class and alleging that the church's sacramental wine offered during Mass was more popular with children than with adults.

Uhrig's case here marked the third time since 2005 that a Catholic priest in North Plainfield has exited service in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations. In July 2005, the diocese removed Pastor John "Jack" Casey from the borough's other Roman Catholic Church, St. Joseph's, to investigate a sexual misconduct allegation made against him. In that case, the accusation involved a minor from about 20 years ago, when Casey was a parochial vicar at St. Peter the Apostle parish in New Brunswick.

An official at St. Luke declined comment Monday, referring questions to the local diocese, which serves Somerset, Hunterdon, Middlesex and Warren counties. Efforts to reach Uhrig were unsuccessful.

Mark Spivey: 908-243-6607; mspivey@MyCentralJersey.com


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