Friends Say the Rev. Fugee Denied He Abused Boy in Wyckoff after His Deal
By Jeff Green
February 8, 2014
|The Rev. Michael Fugee with Michael and Amy Lenehan, longtime friends and former youth ministers at St. Mary’s in Colts Neck, during an annual pilgrimage to Canada.|
A day after the Rev. Michael Fugee signed an agreement with prosecutors in October in which he confessed for a second time to having sexually abused a teenage boy in Wyckoff, two of his most ardent supporters say he proclaimed his innocence to them, possibly violating the agreement and risking jail.
As part of the agreement with the prosecutors, Fugee had promised to stop denying the abuse, which took place over several years more than a decade ago.
Two of the priest’s supporters, Michael and Amy Lenehan, said that on Oct. 31, the day after Fugee signed the agreement with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, led by John L. Molinelli, Fugee told them in a telephone conversation that he had never abused the boy. He said he had agreed to confess so he could avoid conviction on charges that could have sent him to jail, they said.
Fugee’s remarks to the couple represented his second recantation during a legal entanglement that has endured for more than a decade. The twists and turns have disturbed congregants in several dioceses who discovered that a priest who’s been accused of molestation was again in their midst and again in contact with young people — despite a legal agreement that he no longer work with children. It also ensnared the Archdiocese of Newark, which had agreed to enforce the accord and to monitor the priest.
Fugee had previously confessed and retracted his confession to groping the teenager over the course of two years, from 1999 to 2001. At one point, in 2007, Fugee agreed to stop working with children, a promise he failed to uphold over the years. Molinelli’s office intervened last year, sharply criticizing how the archdiocese had monitored Fugee and essentially taking over responsibility.
For the Lenehans, a couple from Colts Neck who have steadfastly defended Fugee, his second confession in the October agreement with the prosecutor came as an emotional blow. They said in an interview with The Record that they had tried to persuade him at the last minute, on the day after he signed the consent order, to void it, because they were still convinced that he was blameless.
Michael Lenehan said when he pressed Fugee in the phone conversation about whether he was a child molester, Fugee told him, “I didn’t do it. This was the best way out of it. My attorney said that I was sure to go to jail.”
Under the agreement, Fugee, who is expected to be defrocked, is forbidden from renouncing the confession publicly or privately.
Fugee’s lawyer, John Whipple, said that what Fugee told the Lenehans did not violate the agreement. It was not yet in effect, Whipple argued, because the document had not been filed in court and approved by a judge.
Advocates for clergy-sex abuse victims were alarmed by Fugee’s latest act of defiance and called on Molinelli to initiate a new case against him.
Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who has pursued hundreds of sex-abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church, said if Fugee is still proclaiming his innocence to his friends, he might not be trusted to uphold other elements of the new agreement as well. The agreement also requires that Fugee leave the priesthood, not work with children in other professions and submit to lifetime monitoring by the Prosecutor’s Office.
“A pedophile is not otherwise a nice person,” Garabedian said. “They lie, they are cunning and clever. Father Fugee will do whatever he can to be within the grasp of children again, and the public needs to be protected from him.”
The tangled history of Fugee and the archdiocese includes an earlier episode in which he violated a previous agreement and a critical one at that. Under the 2007 accord with Molinelli’s office and the archdiocese, Fugee was barred from working with children. Last May, however, he was accused of breaking the terms of that agreement because he had heard confessions at youth group retreats, some of which he had attended at the Lenehans’ invitation. The scandal embroiled Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark and buffeted parishes across the state.
The accusations sparked bitter divisions in the Monmouth County parish where the Lenehans first invited Fugee on youth outings. Their teenage children were taunted by other teenagers and ostracized, the couple said. Some people accused the Lenehans, who were youth ministers, of having enabled Fugee; they lost their positions in the fallout.
In their interview, their first public comments on the controversy, the Lenehans said they had not known about the prohibitions against Fugee working with young people. They accused him of having deceived them and they said they were angry with him.
But underlying it all is a decades-long friendship with the priest. Fugee was reinstated by the archdiocese in 2009, and in his reinstatement Mass homily, he praised the Lenehans for their support during his most difficult time. Even now, they said they still believe in his innocence.
“We agree Father Mike was wrong,” Amy Lenehan said, referencing his attendance at the retreats. “And I’m hurt that he didn’t tell us [about his restrictions] because it directly impacted my life in such a negative way.
“However,” she added, “I still to this day, as angry as I am that he didn’t tell me, I don’t believe he ever did anything to harm anyone.”
In an interview last year with The Record, the victim said that Fugee had molested him over a period of time.
“He should have been removed from the priesthood. … He never should have had the opportunity to be around children,” the victim said in the interview.
Ordained in 1994
Michael Lenehan said he met Fugee in 1986 while volunteering for a group that helped people with disabilities. Lenehan did not provide specifics about the group. Both men were emergency medical technicians then and shared a devotion to the Catholic faith. Michael and Amy Lenehan became youth ministers at St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck in 1993; a year later, Fugee was ordained as a priest in the Newark Archdiocese.
Fugee confessed in 2001 to fondling a 14-year-old boy during mock-wrestling sessions on the boy’s living room floor in Wyckoff. He recanted the confession during a trial two years later, testifying that he had been coerced by police.
The Lenehans became close friends with Fugee and remained at his side as the sex-abuse allegations arose. Prosecutors said the couple was at the boy’s home during one instance of sexual abuse, but they said they never saw anything of the sort.
“That did not happen,” Michael Lenehan said.
But prosecutors presented substantial evidence against Fugee, and a parishioner said the boy had locked himself in his room and hid in a restaurant to avoid Fugee. A jury convicted Fugee of aggravated criminal sexual contact in 2003, but an appeals court overturned the conviction three years later because of a judicial error.
Instead of retrying the case, prosecutors allowed Fugee to enter a two-year rehabilitation program for first-time offenders, provided that he and the Newark Archdiocese sign the agreement that he would not minister to children for as long as he remained a priest.
Michael Lenehan said he never asked to read that first agreement and was unaware of its restrictions. He said he had attended a conference with Fugee and his lawyer at the time, Michael D’Alessio, in the Bergen County Courthouse cafeteria when they were hammering out the accord. D’Alessio, he said, dismissed the agreement as “no big deal — it’s just a face-saving way for the prosecutor to feel like they got something.”
D’Alessio said he did not remember that meeting, and he denied Lenehan’s characterization.
“It was a serious matter, and I treated it seriously,” D’Alessio said. “Of course it’s a big deal. He was giving certain things up. I wouldn’t say things like that.”
In 2009, upon Fugee’s completion of the rehabilitation program, Myers returned him to the ministry, deciding that the alleged groping “did not rise to the level of sexual abuse,” as he said in a later interview.
The Lenehans said they were reassured by the archdiocese’s confidence. Fugee wore a name tag issued by the archdiocese and was considered a “priest in good standing,” Michael Lenehan said. That same year, the couple invited him to attend one of their group’s youth retreats.
Only when The Star-Ledger reported on Fugee’s activities last spring, the Lenehans said, did they learn the full extent of the restrictions he had agreed to with the prosecutor. They were furious with him when they read in the newspaper the language in his agreement that specifically barred him from working with children.
“He did tell us, in the agreement, he couldn’t be a pastor, he couldn’t be a youth minister, he couldn’t be in a parish, in a school,” Michael Lenehan said. “He never said anything about confessions, or we would have never used him.”
The Most Rev. David M. O’Connell, bishop of Trenton, demanded that the Lenehans and St. Mary’s pastor, the Rev. Thomas Triggs, step down.
The Lenehans said O’Connell declined repeated requests to allow them to tell their side of the story. They said they were not trying to get their jobs back and will not pursue future careers as youth ministers.
The Diocese of Trenton did not respond to requests for comment.
Initial deal at issue
Fugee was charged in May with seven counts of violating a judicial order. Prosecutors said he heard confessions at four youth retreats with the Lenehans’ group and on three occasions with youth groups in Bergen County. They also criticized the Archdiocese of Newark for failing to supervise him.
Michael Lenehan said that when he spoke with Fugee in October, on the day after the priest had signed the latest legal agreement dismissing fourth-degree felony charges, he was “disheartened” that Fugee had accepted its far-reaching terms, notably lifetime supervision by the Prosecutor’s Office. This was despite the couple’s anger and sense of betrayal that he had failed to tell them he was barred from contact with children.
“This is forever,” he recalled telling Fugee in reference to the latest legal agreement. “Even if you got convicted, maybe you’d go to jail, probably get probation, I don’t know, but you’ve already done those things, you’ve already lived that life, on probation, on the sex offender’s registry.”
“And I pumped him all up, and the next morning, he calls his attorney, ‘I don’t want to go through with this, I don’t want what I signed. I’m not going to show up at court.’Y”
In that same conversation, Fugee insisted yet again to Lenehan that he had not groped the teenager years before.
A state judge declined a request by Whipple, Fugee’s attorney, the next day to void the agreement.
Under the agreement, Fugee is prohibited from talking to the media.
Whipple contended that Fugee’s telephone conversation with the Lenehans could not have violated the agreement because it hadn’t yet been approved by the judge. He added that Fugee is no longer contesting the agreement and that he is living up to its terms.
“Mr. Fugee became legally bound by the terms of the court order on Nov. 1, 2013, and has meticulously adhered to all of its terms from that date to present,” Whipple said.
Jim Goodness, a Newark Archdiocese spokesman, confirmed receipt of a letter from Fugee requesting permission from the Vatican to leave the priesthood, a process that often takes years. He said all documents were sent to the Vatican.
Now that the agreement is in effect, Michael Lenehan was conflicted about whether to continue supporting his friend’s innocence.
“I care for the guy, he’s been a longtime friend, I care for his future,” Lenehan said. “I’m saddened. He was a great priest and a great man of God.”
But, Lenehan added, “he’s indefensible in a sense. I wouldn’t go around now trying to defend him because he’s not defending himself by saying this.”
Janice Thomas, the parishioner who reported Fugee to the authorities in 2001, said “history is repeating itself,” referring to Fugee’s new agreement that states his confession was “freely and truthfully given,” and Michael Lenehan’s account that Fugee recanted the confession the day after he signed it.
“I don’t see any progress,” Thomas said. “I think it’s disgusting that he is stringing these people along, manipulating them again. … He needs to move on and he’s not.”