Chaplain's Case Reflects Key Issue
Churchreassigned Child Molester
By John Chadwick
April 24, 2002
In 1991, the Rev. William Cramer started a new chapter in his career, taking a job as a chaplain in a Paterson hospital. Today, he supervises all chaplains at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center.
But in 1988, Cramer's future as a priest seemed less certain. That summer, he pleaded guilty to two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. He admitted in court to improperly touching two brothers, ages 11 and 14, and was sentenced to three years probation.
In a civil suit that followed, a jury found Cramer liable for molesting the boys, awarding each victim $38,000 in damages and interest.
As the nation's cardinals meet this week with Pope John Paul II to discuss the spiraling sex scandal, some say Cramer's story can be seen as one example of a key problem facing the Catholic Church: the reassigning of priests accused of misconduct.
"Many bishops think it's safe and appropriate to put these men in some other kind of ministry," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors� Network of Those Abused by Priests. "But it's impossible to supervise somebody 24 hours a day. " Both Bishop Frank J. Rodimer and hospital President Patrick Wardell say they strongly support Cramer. Rodimer, the leader of the Paterson Diocese, said he knew of Cramer's legal troubles when he approved his assignment to the hospital. Cramer reports to the hospital, but is considered a priest in good standing with the diocese.
A spokeswoman for the diocese said no one has ever accused Cramer of misconduct other than the two Sussex County boys. Cramer is supervised and does not work with children, she said.
"I am completely confident he is not a predator or a threat," Rodimer said in an interview last week. "If I felt otherwise, I wouldn't continue his faculties as a priest. " Cramer, 48, declined several requests to be interviewed.
In Rome, meanwhile, Pope John Paul on Tuesday both condemned child abuse as a sin while holding out the possibility for redemption.
"The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God," the pontiff said. "To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern. " But the pope also said: "We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person's soul and can work extraordinary change. " Victims say it's crucial for the church to create a uniform policy for handling priests accused of misconduct. "Each diocese handles [priests] in whatever way they see fit," said the Rev. Gary Hayes, a priest in Kentucky and acting president of Linkup, an advocacy group for victims of abuse. "They all have their own policies. That's what makes it so difficult. " Cramer met the two boys when he served as an associate pastor at Our Lady of the Lake in Sparta. In 1984, he counseled the family as they went through a divorce, said Dennis Donnelly, a lawyer for the victims.
About a year later, the boys complained about Cramer to authorities, and the priest was indicted in September 1985 on charges of sexual assault and criminal sexual contact. In a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty to two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. In court, he admitted that while wrestling with the boys, his hands "rested for a period of time that was more than incidental, upon the area of ...
[their] private parts," court documents show.
But in the 1990 civil suit, Cramer said the mother of the two boys put them up to the allegations because he had spurned her romantic interests, Donnelly said.
After the jury found him liable, Cramer declared bankruptcy and proposed a plan to pay a small portion of the award. A bankruptcy judge rejected that plan, saying it shows "fairly strong evidence of [Cramer's] intentions to manipulate the bankruptcy process. " Donnelly said the two victims eventually settled with Cramer for an amount about half of the original award. "If he had paid his debt to his boys, and he had acknowledged the problem, I don't know if I could fault employing him in a pastoral job," Donnelly said. "Because of his history and the fact that the church knew his history, it seems rather remarkable he is in this position. " Marianna Thompson, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said Cramer voluntarily took himself out of parish work after the indictment, lived with relatives for several years, and did not work as a priest.
The diocese did not seek to remove him from the priesthood - a process that involves petitioning the Vatican. "We chose to let him remain unassigned," Thompson said. "Father Cramer was no longer involved in active ministry. " In 1991, St. Joseph's, run by the Sisters of Charity, which shares a close relationship with the diocese, requested that the bishop assign Cramer to the hospital as a chaplain. Rodimer approved the assignment after Cramer was evaluated by a psychiatrist, Thompson said.
"St. Joseph's believed in him," Thompson said. "At first we were reluctant, then we received written evidence from an independent psychiatrist to say he was not a danger to himself or others. " Thompson said the hospital monitors Cramer, but didn't know any further details. His job - director of pastoral care - involves supervising all chaplains, Thompson said. Besides administrative work, he also visits patients.
Hospital officials would not allow Cramer's staff or supervisor to be interviewed.
In a written statement, Wardell praised Cramer.
"His duties to staff and patients have always been fulfilled with the utmost grace and care, and he has our complete support," Wardell said.
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