Accused former Wyckoff priest Michael Fugee is defrocked
By Jeff Green
March 17, 2014
A priest whose indiscretions embroiled the Archdiocese of Newark and its top bishop in scandal last year has been defrocked.
An archdiocese spokesman confirmed on Monday that the Vatican has returned Michael Fugee to the lay state, meaning that after 20 years he is no longer a Roman Catholic priest.
Fugee confessed to sexually abusing a Wyckoff teenager in 2001 but later wound up working with children at youth groups across the state. Last May he was charged with violating a court-ordered ban on ministering to minors.
To dismiss the charges, Fugee signed a sweeping agreement with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office in November. Part of the agreement was to submit a request to the Vatican that he be defrocked. The process of removing a man from the priesthood, known as laicization, sometimes takes years. The Vatican likely accelerated Fugee’s defrocking because it was voluntary and part of a court order, victims’ advocates said.
Fugee is the third Newark Archdiocese clergyman to be stripped of his collar over sexual abuse accusations. In August the archdiocese announced the defrocking of two men who had pleaded guilty to child abuse, Horacio Daniel Medina and Richard J. Mieliwocki.
The leader of the archdiocese, Archbishop John J. Myers, has come under fire for how he has handled sexual abuse allegations made about priests under his watch. He has also recently been criticized for spending lavishly on his weekend residence and for the policy he approved to handle funerals of accused clerics. Myers was heavily criticized last year for returning Fugee to active ministry after the sexual abuse allegations, and then doing little to supervise him. That criticism also led lawmakers and victims’ advocates to call for his resignation.
Church officials and the Prosecutor’s Office were notified that Fugee had been defrocked by a Vatican tribunal, Jim Goodness, an archdiocese spokesman, said Monday. Goodness added that Myers had agreed to Fugee’s request for laicization and sent it to Rome.
Ronald Fraioli, a parishioner who helped Fugee’s victim go forward to the authorities, said he hopes that the archdiocese, law enforcement officials and churchgoers learn a positive lesson from the 13-year legal saga.
“Everybody can learn from it so that they know better how to react to help children, priests suffering from difficulties in their lives and parishioners and law enforcement,” he said.
Victims’ advocates said Fugee should have been defrocked long ago but praised Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli for holding him accountable.
“The bishop was putting children at risk that didn’t have to be,” said Mark Crawford, the New Jersey director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “It’s totally unacceptable that it took law enforcement demanding this man to be defrocked.”
Molinelli and Fugee’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Fugee was ordained a priest of the Newark Archdiocese in 1994. He started as an associate pastor at a Millburn parish and after a few years was transferred to St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Wyckoff.
There, he confessed to allegations in 2001 that he repeatedly molested a 14-year-old parishioner during mock wrestling sessions on the boy’s living room floor. Fugee recanted at trial, saying he was coerced by police detectives, but a jury found him guilty of aggravated criminal sexual contact.
In 2006, his conviction was overturned on appeal over a judicial error. Instead of retrying Fugee, the Prosecutor’s Office dropped the charges in exchange for his agreement that he would no longer minister to children. He also was placed in a special program for first-time offenders.
Upon Fugee’s completion of the Pretrial Intervention program, Myers brought him back to active ministry, saying his actions “did not rise to the level of sexual abuse.” The priest eventually was assigned to an office position in Newark.
Media reports revealed last year that despite his agreement with authorities, Fugee had attended numerous youth group retreats and heard the confessions of children.
Molinelli’s office investigated and charged him with seven counts of violating a judicial order; three of them related to trips in Bergen County. It dropped the charges after Fugee signed an unprecedented agreement that he would give up the priesthood and be subject to lifetime supervision by the Prosecutor’s Office.
In the new pact, Fugee also admitted abusing the Wyckoff teen and agreed to stop denying it. Two of his close friends, however, told The Record that Fugee maintained his innocence to them a day after he signed it, an apparent violation.
Molinelli launched an inquiry into the matter and said last month he was still investigating.
Archdiocese officials have said that Myers took steps toward defrocking Fugee but didn’t go through with it because the prosecutor dismissed his indictment.
“Thankfully civil authorities moved in again,” said Bob Hoatson, president of Road to Recovery Inc., a group devoted to aiding clergy sex-abuse victims. “Hopefully this man [Fugee] won’t be in a church or around children again, but only time will tell.”
Fraioli, the Wyckoff parishioner, said Fugee has an opportunity now for a new beginning.
“I have nothing but hope for Michael Fugee,” he said. “I think he can find a way to help others outside of the priesthood.”