Passaic Priest Charged with Sexual Contact with Girl, 14
By Abbott Koloff
July 25, 2013
|The Rev. Jose Lopez|
A priest who worked at two parishes in the city of Passaic in the past two years was arrested on Thursday and charged with sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl in the rectory of St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption, authorities said.
The Rev. Jose Lopez, 34, a native of Colombia who is in the United States on a religious work visa, allegedly asked the girl to come to his living quarters in late January to talk about some problems she was having but then put her on his lap, began kissing her and engaged in sexual contact with her, First Assistant Passaic County Prosecutor Robert M. Holmsen said in a statement.
The girl told another priest in May that Lopez had made her “uncomfortable,” but at that time did not provide specific allegations of a crime, said Chief Assistant Passaic County Prosecutor Joseph A. Del Russo. Del Russo said, however, that the priest had a “moral obligation,” though not a legal one, to report what he knew.
Ken Mullaney, an attorney for the Diocese of Paterson, said he called the Prosecutor’s Office on June 19 immediately after that priest called Bishop Arthur Serratelli with information about the allegations.
It was not clear on Thursday why the priest waited a month before making a |report.
“The priest should have reported it immediately to me,” Mullaney said. “He didn’t do so because the initial report was not sexual.”
The girl told police that Lopez kept pulling her back when she tried to get off his lap but that she was able to escape when he fell to the floor during the struggle. Lopez was charged with second-degree luring of a child, third-degree endangering the welfare of a child and fourth-degree criminal sexual contact.
Mullaney said Lopez, who worked as an assistant at St. Mary’s and at St. Nicholas Church, was placed on administrative leave on July 9 and was moved to a facility where he has no contact with children after prosecutors approved his removal while their investigation continued.
The allegations sparked disbelief among some parishioners at St. Mary’s on Thursday evening, with some of them defending the priest.
Lopez denied any wrongdoing on Thursday through his attorney, Joseph Afflitto, who said the priest was released from custody after posting a bond to pay his $50,000 cash bail. He surrendered to authorities on Thursday morning after being informed on Wednesday night that he would be arrested, Afflitto said. He said Lopez is staying in Chester in Morris County, where the Paterson Diocese has a facility for retired priests.
“He said he never touched her in any improper way,” Afflitto said.
Del Russo said Lopez had made the girl uncomfortable on several occasions by trying to hug her before he invited her to his living quarters for counseling on Jan. 20. He said the other incidents did not constitute a crime but that “the Jan. 20 incident was unambiguous.”
Del Russo said that the second priest’s failure to make a report immediately after the girl spoke with him in May did not appear to violate the memorandum of understanding that the state’s five Catholic dioceses have with the state Attorney General’s Office to report all sex abuse allegations to county prosecutors.
But he added: “It’s clear to me he had a moral obligation to report this at that point, but not a legal one. He perceived the information as unclear and ambiguous and didn’t tell anyone. … We’re continuing to review what happened between that priest and the girl.”
Mullaney said diocese policy goes even further by calling for all allegations, including suspicions, to be reported, and that the priest in question made a mistake. He said priests undergo diocesan training that teaches them to “report everything,” a practice that was implemented in the aftermath of a 2002 national scandal involving the sexual abuse of children by priests.
Del Russo said the priest in question told the girl that he would make sure Lopez would no longer bother her. But he said the priest never confronted Lopez about the matter. When the priest called the bishop in June, Del Russo said, |he did not have any new information. The only thing that had changed was that more people at St. Mary’s had heard rumors that something had happened, Del Russo said.
“The rumors spread in June, and the issue became front and center,” Del Russo said. “The circle of people who knew something was getting bigger.”
Lopez was ordained as a priest in 2011, and has been working since that time as a parochial vicar at both St. Mary’s and St. Nicholas, Mullaney said. The diocese has several priests from South America who were recruited to help make up for a shortage of clerics, he said, but he added that he did not know whether Lopez falls into that category. Afflitto said Lopez’s work visa expires at the end of the year.
The pastor of St. Mary’s, the Rev. Edgar Ruiz, did not respond to an interview request on Thursday evening. Several parishioners who were at the church said they did not believe the allegations against Lopez.
“I doubt whatever they are saying about him,” said Gabriel Nunez, 39, who added that he trusts Lopez with his two young children. “It’s impossible. It’s a lie.”
He and another parishioner, Margarita Soto, said they had seen Lopez touching children but always in a way that they considered spiritual. They said the priest hugs children and blesses them.
“When I’ve seen him touch them, it has always been in a healing way,” Soto said.
But another parishioner, Reyna Lucero, said the allegations had shaken her faith and that the church has some deeper problems that need to be addressed.
“This is why priests should marry,” Lucero said. “There has to be change in the church. Who can you trust?”
Mark Crawford, the head of the state chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the allegations and the delay in reporting them demonstrate the shortcomings of relying on agreements between the church and law enforcement. He pointed to the case of the Rev. Michael Fugee, a former Wyckoff priest who was charged this year with allegedly breaking an agreement between the Newark Archdiocese and the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office barring him from working with children.
“Memorandums of understanding do not work,” Crawford said. “They are unenforceable. We need laws on the books in New Jersey that make it clear about what needs to be reported.”