Paterson Diocese Blasts Pastor's Delay on Accused Priest As "Major League Mistak
By Jeff Green
July 27, 2013
|Carmine Galasso/Staff Photographer|
The priest who failed to report inappropriate behavior by another priest now accused of molesting a 14-year-old girl was the pastor of the Passaic parish where the alleged incident took place, raising questions about how effectively the Catholic Church’s “zero tolerance” policy on clergy sex abuse is being followed.
A lawyer for the Diocese of Paterson on Friday condemned the Rev. Edgar Ruiz, the pastor of St. Mary’s of the Assumption, for not contacting church leaders or even confronting the priest, when a young girl told him in May that the Rev. Jose Lopez had taken her into his private living quarters months earlier for counseling.
“That was a major league mistake and violation of our policies, procedures and guidelines,” said the lawyer, Ken Mullaney.
In light of the clergy sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church for more than a decade, dioceses have adopted policies to guard against and detect sexual abuse, requiring clergy members to report any allegations to the authorities, or in the case of the Paterson Diocese, even hints of them.
Lopez, 34, who was released from custody Thursday after posting a $50,000 cash bail, appeared in court Friday on charges of luring of a child, endangering the welfare of a child and criminal sexual contact.
Mullaney, who reported the allegations against Lopez to prosecutors, said Bishop Arthur Serratelli “is very upset, not only for the victim but the church,” he said. “If Father Jose did something wrong, it’s a black eye for him and a black eye for the church.” He said the case against Lopez goes against “everything we’ve done over the past 10 years.”
Lopez, a native of Colombia who is in the United States on a religious work visa, was removed from ministry July 9 and placed in a retirement home for priests in Chester. On Friday, Mullaney said he was moved to another location, which he did not reveal, after Chester residents complained.
In the new location, Mullaney said, Lopez will be “under direct supervision of a senior priest” and will have a “less-than-zero percent chance of contact with minors.”
Any punishment of Ruiz will be left up to Serratelli, the lawyer said. While the girl did not tell him she was sexually abused, Mullaney said, the pastor should have known that a priest being alone in the rectory with a child is “clearly inappropriate” and “violated everything we stand for.” The girl also told Ruiz she hugged Lopez and sat in his lap, Mullaney said.
Ruiz could not be reached at the St. Mary’s rectory on Friday, and he has not returned several calls seeking comment.
The pastor told Serratelli about his conversation with the girl on June 19, a month after he spoke with her, because more people at St. Mary’s had heard rumors that something had happened, prosecutors said.
“The rumors spread in June, and the issue became front and center,” Chief Assistant Passaic County Prosecutor Joseph A. Del Russo said Thursday, adding that the priest had a moral but not a legal obligation to immediately report what he knew.
The Paterson Diocese code of pastoral conduct requires priests who receive information that gives them a “reasonable” suspicion that a child has been abused to immediately report it to the state Division of Youth and Family Services.
Then, they are required to contact Mullaney, who is to notify the appropriate county prosecutor. If there is reason to believe the criminal conduct is continuing, the priests have to immediately call authorities.
“We have to go the extra mile to protect all children,” the policy states.
Mullaney said that when he speaks about conduct with children, he tells people to follow his “three commandments”: Never be alone, do not touch and complete transparency.
He also said he goes beyond a memorandum of understanding between the state’s five Catholic dioceses and the attorney general, reporting even borderline criminal conduct.
While Mullaney said the pastor made a mistake, he insisted no harm was done as a result of not immediately reporting the victim’s complaint.
Robert Hoatson, president of the victims’ advocacy group Road to Recovery, said Ruiz should have detected that abuse was going on. He called on Serratelli to remove him as pastor. He also disputed the idea that his delay in reporting the information had no negative impact. Had authorities known sooner, the girl could have undergone counseling, prosecutors could have begun investigating and Lopez could have been removed from ministry a month earlier.
“The biggest problem with childhood sexual abuse is silence,” Hoatson said.
The allegations against Lopez follow other recent North Jersey controversies involving Catholic priests suspected of sexual abuse, most recently the resignation of an Oradell pastor who allowed the Rev. Robert Chabak to live temporarily at a church rectory. Church leaders had gathered “sufficient evidence” that Chabak had abused a boy in the 1970s before the cleric resigned his ministry. The Rev. Michael Fugee, convicted in 2003 of groping a Wyckoff boy — a conviction that was overturned three years later — was arrested in May on charges he violated a court-ordered agreement to never minister to children.
During a seven-minute appearance in Passaic Municipal Court, Lopez — wearing a blue polo shirt and slacks — answered questions from Judge Debbie Irwin through an interpreter and looked down at a lectern he stood behind.
Irwin said conditions of his bail included that he communicate his location with prosecutors, have no contact with the alleged victim and not have any unsupervised contact with children under 18. Lopez also had to surrender his travel documents.
The judge scheduled Lopez’s next appearance for Aug. 16 in Superior Court in Paterson.
Lopez and a woman who accompanied him declined to comment after the proceeding.
Lopez denied any wrongdoing on Thursday through his attorney, Joseph Afflitto.
“He said he never touched her in any improper way,” Afflitto said.
Prosecutors 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. She 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.
Del Russo said the other incidents did not constitute a crime but that “the Jan. 20 incident was unambiguous.”
Mullaney said the diocese has not received any other complaints against Lopez, who was ordained as a priest in 2011 and worked as an assistant at St. Mary’s and at St. Nicholas Church. He passed a background check in February 2010 and completed sexual abuse awareness training two months later. Lopez signed the pastoral code of conduct in March of this year.