Sexting Priest Suspended from Ministry; Trenton Bishop Apologizes to Parishioners
By Mark Mueller
October 3, 2013
|This picture of the Rev. Matthew Riedlinger had been posted on the public website of The Monitor, a publication of the Diocese of Trenton. The diocese has since removed it.|
A Roman Catholic priest caught up in a sexting sting last year with someone he thought to be a 16-year-old boy has been suspended from the priesthood by Trenton Bishop David M. O’Connell, who called the man’s behavior "a betrayal of trust and confidence."
The Rev. Matthew Riedlinger, 30, formerly an assistant pastor at St. Aloysius Church in Jackson, may not serve as a priest in any capacity and may not wear clerical garb, O’Connell said in a statement this afternoon.
Riedlinger’s actions, which include inappropriate texting conversations with young adults, "have clearly contravened his priestly vows and, although given ample opportunity to atone for his actions and to get help for his problems, he has failed to do so," O’Connell said.
The bishop said he will consult with the Vatican about what to do next. O’Connell could seek to remove Riedlinger from the priesthood altogether, a process known as laicization.
The suspension comes after The Sunday Star-Ledger published a lengthy story outlining Riedlinger’s history of sexually explicit conversations in text messages and on Facebook.
In 2011, two Catholic University of America graduates complained to O’Connell that Riedlinger had repeatedly sexually harassed them and other young men for years. The graduates mounted the sting in the summer of 2012, posing as a 16-year-old boy on Facebook, because they believed the bishop did not take sufficient action against the priest.
|Trenton Bishop David M. O'Connell, seen here in 2012, has suspended the Rev. Matthew Riedlinger from the priesthood.|
Within two weeks of the first contact, Riedlinger initiated sexual conversations with the fictional 16-year-old and went on to discuss pornography, mutual masturbation and sexual encounters. He also repeatedly asked to meet. The Star-Ledger has obtained copies of the messages.
O’Connell, when given a transcript of the conversations in August 2012, removed Riedlinger from the parish and placed him in restricted ministry away from children. But he did not inform parishioners of the allegations until Sept. 21, after learning The Star-Ledger was preparing to publish a story.
At the time of Riedlinger’s removal, parishioners were told he was taking a leave to "discern whether he wanted to remain a priest."
Asked why O’Connell had made the decision to suspend Riedlinger, the bishop’s spokeswoman, Rayanne Bennett, said the diocese received new information suggesting he may have continued to engage in inappropriate behavior.
"Second- and third-hand unsubstantiated information was passed along that indicated the problem behavior may have persisted," Bennett said, declining to elaborate.
She said the information has been turned over to the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.
The Trenton Diocese is home to nearly 450,000 Roman Catholics in Mercer, Monmouth, Ocean and Burlington counties.
Riedlinger, an Ohio native who was ordained in 2010, was granted a leave of absence from the priesthood last week. Bennett said he has left the diocese.
"I had tried from the beginning to take concerted action, but also to get help for Father Riedlinger," O’Connell said in the statement. "But the more I have learned of his actions during and subsequent to outpatient and inpatient treatment, the more it has become clear that strong, resolute and permanent action must now be taken to protect others, particularly, our youth."
|Timothy Schmalz, 23, stands before the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. Schmalz, originally from Howell, was an altar server at the shrine when he met the Rev. Matthew Riedlinger, who has since been removed from ministry in the Diocese of Trenton.|
O’Connell apologized to parishioners in the diocese and, particularly, to those at St. Aloysius.
"I want to take this opportunity to express my sadness and regret to the parishioners of St. Aloysius and the entire diocese, who have had to deal with rumors and innuendo surrounding his conduct as well as Father Riedlinger’s sudden removal from that parish," O’Connell said.
"Although I was restricted in what I could say at the time due to privacy constraints that I would respect for anyone, nevertheless, the parish community is especially due an apology for having been put through this ordeal."
Timothy Schmalz, a former Howell resident who carried out the sting last year with a friend, said he was relived Riedlinger would no longer be able to continue his behavior "behind the mask of the priesthood."
At the same time, Schmalz said, "I am perplexed as to why O’Connell waited only until learning of imminent media coverage to inform the parish and take ‘resolute and permanent action.’"
"Furthermore," he said, "contrary to the diocese’s insistence on protecting Riedlinger’s privacy, had the bishop informed the parish that he was being removed for ‘inappropriate behavior’ and not for a period of ‘discernment,’ it would have both upheld Riedlinger’s privacy and taken a step toward the transparency the church pledges."