Cliffside Park Pastor Resigns over Allegation of Abuse from before He Was Ordained
By Deena Yellin and Abbott Koloff
June 30, 2020
The pastor at the Church of the Epiphany in Cliffside Park has voluntarily stepped down after the Archdiocese of Newark received a report that he allegedly abused a minor before he became a priest almost 20 years ago, church officials said Monday.
The Rev. Bruce Harger, 66, announced his resignation from the parish this past weekend.
"The alleged abuse occurred before Fr. Harger was associated with the Archdiocese of Newark, and before he was ordained," Maria Margiotta, an archdiocese spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement.
She did not provide further information about the allegations. Harger, who was ordained in 2001, started working at the Church of the Epiphany as an administrator in 2018 and was installed as a pastor in 2019. The priest has denied any wrongdoing, according to thearchdiocese.
In a past case, archdiocese officials have said they did not have the authority to punish a priest for allegedly abusing a child before he was ordained. That priest, the Rev. Kevin Gugliotta, was returned to ministry after being temporarily removed when an accuser came forward in 2003, alleging abuse from decades before.
Margiotta did not immediately respond Monday when asked if Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the leader of the archdiocese, has the authority to permanently remove Harger from the ministry for something that allegedly happened prior to his ordination. Archbishop John Myers, Tobin's predecessor, was the leader of the archdiocese when Gugliotta was reinstated.
"The excuse Myers gave citing canon law was absurd," said Mark Crawford, head of the New Jersey chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP. "It was an absolute failure of common sense.
"Hopefully, this cardinal has the fortitude to do what's right should the allegation be substantiated," Crawford said of the Harger case. "If it's found to be credible, at no point should he be returned to ministry."
In the Gugliotta case, the archdiocese faces a pending lawsuit alleging that a 14-year-old boy was abused at St. Bartholomew the Apostle parish in Scotch Plains in 2007, four years after the archdiocese was told about the prior allegations.
By then, the state's criminal statute of limitations for the most serious sex offenses had been eliminated. The attorney for the plaintiff in the lawsuit has said his client has been interviewed by law enforcement. Gugliotta has denied the allegations in civil court papers. Church officials permanently removed him from ministry after he was arrested in 2016 on child pornography charges.
When Harger was promoted to pastor, Cliffside Park officials celebrated by declaring Oct. 12, 2019 to be "Father Bruce Harger Day."
"I take immense pride in extending our deep appreciation to Father Bruce for his countless contributions and exemplary service to the Church of Epiphany and our community," Mayor Thomas Calabrese said in his proclamation.
Prior to his current appointment, Harger served for three years as pastor of Saint Nicholas Parish in Jersey City beginning in 2013. He was pastoral associate at St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in Hillsdale for six years before embarking on a six-month sabbatical in 2012.
The Rev. John Korbelak, pastor at St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church, said he hasn't been in touch with Harger for over a decade and was unaware of any misconduct.
"He was involved in liturgy, altar servers, and helped with the school and teaching," Korbelak said. He added that it is not unusual for a priest to leave a parish after six years or to take a sabbatical.
Harger came to the priesthood late in life following a career in music.
According to a 2018 profile in the Church of the Epiphany bulletin, Harger was born into a military family and lived in many different places growing up, including Catholic school in Austin, Texas and public high schools in Anchorage, Alaska, and Vancouver, Washington. He studied music in college at the University of Portland in Oregon and earned a degree in Music Performance.
He was briefly employed by the Hidden Valley Opera Ensemble in Carmel, California and then moved to the Washington D.C. area where he sang with the Wolftrap Summer Opera and at the Kennedy Center with the Washington Opera Chorus. Harger also spent a year singing with an opera company in Switzerland before returning to America to live with family in eastern Utah, according to the bulletin.
He began his theological education in San Jose, California, and later entered Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. He came to New Jersey to study Biblical Hebrew at the Princeton Theological Seminary.
Harger studied for the priesthood at Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University, and was ordained to the priesthood when he was 47 years old. Since then, he has worked for various parishes in the Newark Archdiocese.
The archdiocese, in keeping with its policies, has reported the allegation to the state Attorney General's Office, said Margiotta.
The alleged victim has been offered counseling and healing services by the Archdiocesan Office for the Protection of the Faithful, she added.
Calls and emails to Rev. Harger at the Church of the Epiphany, where he was still listed as pastor as of Monday afternoon, were not immediately returned.
Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Email: email@example.com Twitter: @deenayellin