Conflicts Arise over Accused Priest Living at St. Joseph's in Oradell
By Jeff Green
July 24, 2013
Parishioners of an Oradell church were never told that a suspected child sex offender was allowed to live in the rectory, yet a Newark Archdiocese spokesman said the public was never at risk.
But public outcry about this incident, and two others involving a disgraced Wyckoff cleric, have underscored potential conflicts between church operations and the public’s right to know when troubled priests are in their midst.
The archdiocese’s mind-set, a Catholic church expert says, “flies in the face” of developments in criminal law — where sex offenders are required to register with authorities and to live certain distances from schools and child-care centers.
The Rev. Robert Chabak was stripped of priestly duties after church officials, investigating a complaint, found “sufficient evidence” that he abused a teenage boy in the 1970s. While he “vehemently denied” the accusations, he chose to resign in 2004 when the archdiocese planned to take action under church law, said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese. The statute of limitations had expired and Chabak was not criminally charged.
Chabak only was allowed to attend Mass while he lodged temporarily at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, said Goodness, who acknowledged the archdiocese did not alert parishioners that he was there.
In its handling of the Rev. Michael Fugee, whose 2003 conviction on charges of groping a teenage boy was later overturned, the archdiocese placed him at a Catholic hospital, then in a parish rectory, without fully disclosing his past to administrators and parishioners. Both times, the archdiocese removed him from those settings under public pressure.
Fugee was arrested in May on charges he violated a ban on ministering to children.
Dr. Charles Reid, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and Catholic canon lawyer, said church law bends toward protecting priests’ reputations, specifically acknowledging their right to a good name.
“The church has preserved the right to a good reputation at the expense of the public’s right to know,” Reid said.
Reid said the archdiocese should have alerted parishioners and staff, or at least the parish council, about the backgrounds of the priests who had taken up residence in their places of worship and work.
In May, the archdiocese received information that a second person had been abused by Chabak during the 1970s. Goodness said he forwarded the complaint to prosecutors. Chabak could not be reached for comment.
The archdiocese’s vicar general, John E. Doran, allowed Chabak, 66, to live in the St. Joseph’s rectory after his Shore home was wrecked during Superstorm Sandy, Goodness said. He stayed there until February, when archdiocese officials determined that repairs were taking too long and they moved him to a retirement home in Rutherford, Goodness said.
Later, when Chabak moved back into his home in Toms River, he returned to the rectory a few times, which Goodness said was not permitted.
St. Joseph’s pastor, the Rev. Thomas Iwanowski, a longtime friend of Chabak’s, is stepping down from his post this month after parishioners complained about his leadership and Chabak’s living arrangement. Doran resigned in May following Fugee’s arrest on seven charges of violating a judicial order.
Goodness said that in Chabak’s case, the archdiocese put no one in danger and was acting out of compassion in a rare emergency.
Nonetheless, he said the church will not allow accused priests to live in parishes in the future, and that the archdiocese is reviewing what to do in a similar emergency.
“In this instance I would say there’s no danger, but I think as we go forward we need to find an alternative to a parish for housing if one is needed in the future,” Goodness said. “No parish needs to have ongoing conflict that doesn’t need to be there.”
Alternative living arrangements for Chabak might not have been available – Goodness pointed out that hotels across the region were booked after Sandy and people flocked to Red Cross shelters. He said he did not know whether the retirement home had any openings at the time.
Reid said archdiocese officials clearly had good intentions, acting out of concern for Chabak during a chaotic period. But they could have done more, he said, by looking into other lodging options and checking up on him outside of the normal visits the archdiocese conducts with accused priests.
The archdiocese also could have informed parishioners of the situation, even if it was just the parish council. Such a move “could ignite a firestorm” of complaints, Reid conceded, but he said it would have been the right thing to do.
“Maybe you rely on people’s maturity not to erupt in a riot,” he said. “If you treat people like adults here, maybe they respond.”
In Fugee’s case, the archdiocese decided it did not have to notify the public about the priest’s past. Fugee was found guilty in 2003 of groping a 13-year-old Wyckoff boy when he was an assistant pastor at the St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church. His conviction was overturned a few years later because of a judicial error, and he agreed to no longer minister to children so that prosecutors would drop the charges.
After Archbishop John J. Myers returned Fugee to ministry in 2009, the archdiocese assigned him to work as a chaplain at St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark without telling administrators about the legal agreement. Prosecutors decried the church’s handling of the situation, saying officials “teetered” on a violation with a “potentially dangerous assignment.”
In February, parishioners of a Rochelle Park church, where Fugee lived in the rectory, also said they were unaware of his past or the supervision agreement. Two charges in his new case relate to his hearing confessions of children at the church, an alleged violation of the pact.
Fugee’s case has been publicized extensively — which is reason enough not to tell parishioners about his history of alleged abuse, the archdiocese has said.
Reid, the Catholic college professor, said a “zero tolerance” policy on clergy sexual abuse, adopted by Catholic bishops in the United States in 2002, requires certain actions to be taken after accusations come forward, but many policies still are guided by a priority to guard the priests, said Reid.
“You have a right to your reputation, you have a right to your good name, but how does that intersect with the public’s right to be aware of risks?” Reid asked.