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  New Rules Put Priest out of Chaplain's Job

By John Chadwick
The Record
June 20, 2002

Paterson Bishop Frank J. Rodimer placed a 25-year veteran priest on administrative leave Wednesday, formally beginning the diocese's enforcement of tougher new rules for Catholic priests who sexually abuse children.

The Rev. William Cramer, head chaplain at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson, is the first cleric in North Jersey to be disciplined under a landmark abuse policy approved last week in Dallas by the nation's Catholic bishops. In the short term, Cramer loses his chaplain job; in the long term, he will either lose his priesthood or face a life of prayer and penance in seclusion.

Cramer, 49, pleaded guilty in 1988 to improperly touching two young brothers and was sentenced to three years' probation. In 1991, he began working for the hospital - with the approval of Rodimer, who has said repeatedly that Cramer poses no danger to children.

But under the new policy, the bishop's opinion doesn't count. The rules expressly require bishops to get rid of all priests who abuse minors, either by removing them from the clergy, or by taking them out of all official church roles where they have contact with the laity. If the bishop chooses the second option, the priests keep the title "father," but are prohibited from celebrating Mass publicly and wearing a Roman collar, and they must lead a life of prayer and penance, in a monastery or a similar environment.

In Cramer's case, Rodimer hasn't decided which choice to pursue. Based on a three-paragraph statement released Wednesday, and on follow-up interviews with diocesan officials, it appears the diocese wants to give Cramer time to absorb the situation and consider the options. The policy allows priests to request removal from the clergy. For now, Cramer is said to be despondent.

"The bishop presented Father Cramer with the requirements of the [policy] and placed him on administrative leave pending the resolution of this matter," the statement said.

As required by the bishops, the diocese encouraged Cramer to retain a canon lawyer who can advise him on the complex legal tradition of the Catholic Church, and whether he has grounds to appeal. "Father Cramer will respond back to the bishop after he has considered the matter and consulted canonical counsel," said Marianna Thompson, spokeswoman for the diocese.

The action came after a meeting Tuesday between Cramer and Rodimer at the diocesan center in Clifton. Cramer attended the meeting represented by a lawyer for the hospital, William Johnson of Riverdale. Neither Cramer, who is temporarily living with his mother, nor Johnson could be reached for comment Wednesday.

Because Cramer has been placed on leave by the diocese, he cannot work at the hospital - where he would celebrate Mass and perform the sacraments of the church as part of his duties. Patrick R. Wardell, hospital president and chief executive officer, said in a statement that he granted Cramer a leave of absence.

"We would welcome Father Cramer's return to St. Joseph's if it is deemed appropriate by the Diocese of Paterson," Wardell said. The hospital is run by the Sisters of Charity, and has a close relationship with the diocese.

Meanwhile, a veteran Catholic nun who supervised Cramer spoke out forcefully on his behalf and condemned the new policy. Sister Ann Stango, a vice president at St. Joseph's, said the new rules give the bishops no flexibility for dealing with a priest like Cramer who has already been punished by legal authorities and has repented.

"I believe this policy is the least reflective of the forgiveness that Jesus founded his church upon," Stango said. "Jesus found it in his heart to forgive when forgiveness was sought, and repentance was made. Maybe someday, our bishops and also the victims of abuse will learn how to do this too."

Neither Cramer's victims, now in their late 20s and early 30s, nor their lawyer could be reached Wednesday.

But the national director of a victims' group said forgiveness for priests isn't the only issue.

"This is about protection of children," said David Clohessy of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "If a drunk driver runs over this nun, and I come upon the scene, I'm not going to tell her to forgive the driver. I'm going to call 911, get an ambulance, and call the police to arrest the driver so he doesn't hurt anyone else. Then and only then can we talk about forgiveness."

The bishops approved the policy - known as the Charter for Protection of Children and Young People - amid a national scandal over predator priests. More than 200 priests and three bishops have stepped down or have been suspended for allegations of sexual abuse since the crisis began in January with a case in Boston.

Bishops have traditionally wielded great powers of discretion in determining how to handle errant priests. But during the scandal, they've come under tremendous criticism for shifting predator priests to different assignments despite clear evidence they posed a threat to minors.

The charter also requires dioceses to report all allegations against priests to law enforcement authorities, set up review boards, and hire a victims' advocate.

The action against Cramer had been expected. Out of several priests in the diocese accused of abusing children, he was the only one known to still be working. The diocese is also planning to take action against the Rev. James Hanley, who is retired. Hanley was accused of abusing around a dozen boys in the Seventies and Eighties at a Mendham parish.

Cramer was serving as an associate pastor at a Sparta parish in 1984 when he began counseling a family going through a divorce. About a year later, the mother told authorities that Cramer had fondled her two sons. Cramer also worked in parishes in Wayne and in Boonton before being indicted in 1985.

In a plea bargain, he admitted in court that while wrestling with the two boys, his "hands came in contact with, and rested for a period of time, that was more than incidental, upon the area of [their] private parts."

In a civil suit, a jury found Cramer liable for the abuse and awarded each boy $38,000 in damages and interest. Cramer asserted that the mother of the two boys put them up to the allegations because he had spurned her romantic interests.

Cramer filed for bankruptcy after the jury award, and ended up paying the victims about half the amount, said their lawyer, Dennis Donnely.

After his indictment, Cramer left parish work. He began filling in for priests at local hospitals. Eventually, he was offered a job by Sister Jane Frances Brady, the former president of St. Joseph's. The diocese said it approved the arrangement after Cramer was evaluated by a psychiatrist and it was determined that he was not a danger to others.

Stango, the vice president, said Cramer is a model employee. "People trust him with their personal problems," she said. "He is caring, generous, and is never judgmental."

 
 

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