Former Wyckoff Priest's Lawyer Vows to Fight New Charges
By Denisa R. Superville and Jeff Green
May 22, 2013
|Rev. Michael Fugee made his first appearance before Judge Patrick Roma on charges that he broke an agreement with law enforcement to never work with children, May 21, 2013|
A lawyer representing the Catholic priest who faces new charges stemming from his continued contact with minors on Wednesday questioned why investigators searched the cleric’s residence before his arrest, while a group of priests and nuns called for the Newark archbishop to step down for what they called his lax oversight.
The attorney for the Rev. Michael Fugee revealed that prosecutors executed a search warrant Monday at the priest’s residence in a Newark parish, seizing unspecified items on the same day that they charged him with seven counts of contempt of a judicial order. Fugee allegedly heard confessions of minors, an activity prohibited by an agreement he signed with authorities in 2007 after his conviction on a charge of aggravated criminal sexual contact was overturned on appeal.
Victims advocates on Wednesday urged the resignation of an archdiocesan review board that cleared Fugee to continue working as a priest, and a group of clerics called Catholic Whistleblowers turned up the heat on Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, asking the head of American bishops to call on the Vatican to remove him from office.
And another day passed in which two pastors at Rochelle Park and Paramus remained silent about Fugee’s alleged involvement with children in their parishes, even after parishioners demanded answers following the priest’s arrest.
Michael D’Alessio, who was Fugee’s lawyer when he signed the agreement with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office barring him from working with children, said he was angered that prosecutors searched Fugee’s residence at St. Antoninus Parish in Newark and arrested him without advance notice, calling the moves “an abuse of power.”
“This is a contempt of court charge,” D’Alessio said about the fourth-degree charges against the priest. “What are we searching for?”
He accused prosecutors of violating an unwritten rule allowing attorneys to turn in clients who are not dangerous to society or flight risks, saying authorities were only “seeking publicity to make him look bad.”
“They take him out of his house in cuffs like an ordinary criminal,” D’Alessio said. “It was uncalled for, unprofessional and unnecessary. I understand arresting people [who are] security risks; none of that was present here. This is a docile guy who happens to be well thought of by a lot of people still.”
Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli said his office occasionally informs defense lawyers ahead of time when their clients will be arrested if they cooperate with authorities. He said his staff received “no cooperation” from D’Alessio and Fugee.
He also said his office has a policy of simultaneously executing search and arrest warrants rather than conducting them separately. He declined to say what was seized from Fugee’s residence or why a search was conducted.
D’Alessio said that Fugee is upset by the arrest and the new investigation.
“He’s embarrassed because they’re making it out to be a horrible act because he heard confessions,” D’Alessio said.
D’Alessio did not deny that the priest heard children’s confessions at parishes throughout New Jersey, but said he “acted in good faith.” Fugee, who was released on bail from the Bergen County Jail on Tuesday night, never was “unsupervised” with children, a point D’Alessio argued is a crucial element of the agreement.
“Father Fugee is not guilty of this offense,” D’Alessio said. “He did not under any circumstances violate a memorandum of understanding. He was very aware of it. He was aware of what he could do and not do.”
The agreement, which also was signed by the Archdiocese of Newark, prohibits Fugee from unsupervised contact with children, holding positions involving children and participating in youth ministry activities as long as he is a priest. It specifically precludes him from hearing confessions and attending youth retreats, as prosecutors said he did.
Prosecutors said Fugee heard one-to-one confessions from children on seven occasions between 2010 to 2012, but that they always were made in an open room where other adults and priests were present.
D’Alessio said prosecutors have to prove that Fugee “knowingly and purposely” violated the agreement.
The pastors of churches where Fugee allegedly heard confessions remained silent Wednesday. The Rev. Gene Field, pastor of Our Lady of Visitation in Paramus, did not return messages. The Rev. Robert Wolfee of Sacred Heart Church in Rochelle Park, where Fugee was allowed to live for two years, said in an email that he had “no comment at this time” and referred a reporter to the Newark Archdiocese.
Jim Goodness, spokesman for Myers, said the archdiocese had no knowledge of the prosecutor’s charges involving the parishes.
“The activity was outside of the ministry we assigned him to, and we would not have given him permission had we known,” Goodness said.
Goodness said church officials are reviewing their procedures when it comes to examining sex abuse reports. He declined to give specifics. He said church officials recently distributed a memo to parishes emphasizing that visiting priests from other dioceses and archdiocesan priests traveling to other areas present proper paperwork showing they are in good standing.
“I would definitely say [Myers] has been very proactive in terms of addressing this whole issue,” Goodness said.
The Catholic Whistleblowers, a new advocacy group, on Wednesday called on New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan to take a stand on the Fugee case as the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Dolan said earlier this month through a spokesman that he is closely following developments in the case.
“It’s pretty clear Fugee violated his agreement,” said the Rev. John Bambrick of the Trenton Diocese, a member of the group, during a Manhattan press conference. “He heard confessions — that’s unsupervised.”
Another support group for clergy victims, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, also spoke out Wednesday, calling on members of the Newark Archdiocese review board, which determined in 2009 that Fugee could continue in ministry, to resign and speak out against Myers.
Meanwhile, the man who prosecutors say was Fugee’s victim — when he was 13 and Fugee was an associate pastor at the Church of St. Elizabeth in Wyckoff — spoke out this week, criticizing church officials for allowing the priest to continue in ministry and describing his emotions over the years leading up to the priest’s latest arrest.
The alleged victim, who asked that his identity not be revealed, told The Record in an interview Tuesday that he felt disconnected from recent stories about Fugee and that he felt like a “third party.” He said he was surprised by recent allegations that Fugee heard children’s confessions.
“I hate to sound like a parent, but I really thought he would have learned something from all that,” he said.
He said he had blocked out the abuse and had moved on with his life, finishing high school and going to college. He said church officials had appeared to “close ranks” to protect Fugee instead of admitting any wrongdoing, and he referred to Fugee as having traits that make it easy to gain people’s trust.
“He was — and I am sure still is — a very charismatic guy,” he said.