Nutley Parish, Protesters Face off over Pastor
By Denisa R. Superville and Jeff Green
May 12, 2013
NUTLEY — Tempers flared between parishioners and protesters Sunday at an Essex County church that allowed an embattled Catholic priest |to participate in youth ministry activities although he was banned from working with children.
The pastor of Holy Family Church in Nutley rebuffed victims’ advocates who stood outside the church, demanding that he resign over a heated controversy surrounding the Rev. Michael Fugee.
“I have no plans to resign,” Monsignor Paul Bochicchio said while greeting parishioners leaving the 10 a.m. Mass. “I have done nothing wrong.”
Bochicchio said last week that Fugee had given talks to the parish’s youth and had accompanied them on trips to Canada, an apparent violation of a 2007 agreement among Fugee, the Archdiocese of Newark and the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. Bochicchio has said that Fugee was supervised at all times, and that his involvement with Holy Family did not violate the agreement.
The parish’s two volunteer youth ministers backed up their pastor, explaining in interviews with The Record the extent of Fugee’s roles at Holy Family and with children. Fugee, 52, was convicted of aggravated criminal sexual contact in 2003 for allegedly groping a 13-year-old boy while he was an assistant pastor in Wyckoff. The conviction was overturned because of a judicial error, but to avoid a second trial, Fugee agreed to serve two years’ probation and signed the agreement with prosecutors prohibiting “unsupervised contact” and any involvement with youth groups.
As Bochicchio made his brief comments on Sunday, five protesters affiliated with Road to Recovery Inc. stood on the sidewalk of the Brookline Avenue church, demanding that Bochicchio quit.
“Bochicchio: Resign Today,” one sign read. “Bochicchio: Follow Fugee Out,” read another.
“Bochicchio never should have had him here around children at all,” said Robert M. Hoatson, a former priest and the co-founder and president of Road to Recovery, an organization that helps survivors and victims of sexual abuse. “The fact that Bochicchio accompanied a youth group to Canada with Fugee is unconscionable.”
Bochicchio said on Sunday that he stood by his comments in his only extensive interview, with The Star-Ledger last week, but wasn’t allowed to talk further about the case.
In response to criticism that Fugee should not have had any contact with children, he disagreed.
“That’s their belief,” Bochicchio said.
Holy Family youth minister Amy DiCristo said Fugee was supervised during youth group excursions and that since 2009, two adults were required be in the presence of minors at all times in the case of a medical emergency or other problem.
DiCristo, 28, said she never saw Fugee’s agreement with prosecutors and she didn’t know who — if anyone — gave him permission to go on the Canada trips. They were multichurch pilgrimages, she said.
John O’Reilly, another youth minister, said Bochicchio managed paperwork for the pilgrimages.
O’Reilly said he and DiCristo knew that Fugee couldn’t have unsupervised contact with minors, but “that was pretty much it.,” he said. “Monsignor Paul took care of everything. He was always present.”
The trips to Canada involved busing a half dozen or so disabled people to two healing shrines in Quebec. Most of the time, O’Reilly said, was spent taking the parishioners to the shrines and to other places they wanted to visit.
Usually a handful of 16- and 17-year-olds helped the youth ministers on the trips, he said. Everyone slept in the same retreat house but on separate floors. The priests normally slept on the third floor, separated from the others.
DiCristo said she has attended the Canada trips from 2007 to 2011 and Fugee was present each of those years — the last two after he was returned to the ministry following his probation. O’Reilly said that on the 2010 and 2011 trips, Fugee said Mass and heard confessions. The youth ministers weren’t sure if Fugee heard the confessions of minors, but all confessions were done in the open — not in a confessional.
The youth ministers said Fugee also participated in parish-sponsored “praise and worship” sessions that included Scripture reading, prayer and open discussions. O’Reilly said parishioners of all ages participated, but normally only one or two teens.
Fugee mostly prayed during the events, but he occasionally gave a “witness testimony” and included his 2001 criminal case when he was an assistant pastor at St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Wyckoff, O’Reilly said. Fugee compared his own struggles “to Jesus being condemned,” the youth minister said. “He wasn’t calling himself Jesus, [it was] a parallel to Jesus – how he stayed fervent to faith through all the persecution.”
Jim Goodness, spokesman for Archbishop John J. Myers, said the Canada trips were not part of Fugee’s assigned ministry. He declined to say whether the archdiocese knew about Fugee’s attendance but said the priest did not ask permission and would not have received it had he asked.
Goodness said Fugee would not have needed permission to join the worship sessions and that they fell within the agreement with prosecutors because they were geared to adults.
Some lawmakers, including state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono, along with victims’ advocates, have called on Myers to resign.
The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office is investigating whether Fugee and the archdiocese violated the terms of the agreement.
Parishioners on Sunday rejected calls for their pastor’s resignation, telling protesters, “We love our monsignor” and urging them to go away.
“Talk to monsignor, get to know him first,” one parishioner, who declined to give his name, told the protesters. “You guys have no idea. You don’t know him, do you?”
Arnold Liloia, who has attended the church for more than 30 years, said that the protesters were “picking on the holiest man I know.”
“The monsignor is a good friend and somebody that backs his friends,” he said. “He is a holy man. He should not be persecuted by these people.”
DiCristo said many in her parish believe Fugee is innocent of child molestation.
“We know in our heart of hearts he did nothing wrong,” she said. “It’s just a shame to see once again they’re putting an innocent man on the cross.”