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  Parish Begs for Return of Its Pastor

By Brian Donohue
Star-Ledger
July 9, 2002

More than 100 parishioners of a Morris County church, who lost their pastor in April after old allegations of sexual abuse against him surfaced, showed up for an emotional meeting last night with a representative of the Paterson Diocese, pleading for the priest's return.

Meeting in their parish hall in Schooleys Mountain, Washington Township, members of Our Lady of the Mountain Church begged the Rev. George Hundt, a representative of Paterson Bishop Frank Rodimer, for information about the fate of their pastor, the Rev. Ralph Sodano.

Sodano was placed on administrative leave in April after church officials received claims of sexual abuse that date back many years. County prosecutors dismissed the accusations within 24 hours, citing the statute of limitations. But the Diocese of Paterson temporarily relieved Sodano of his duties and said he would be evaluated by doctors and psychologists.

Last night Hundt declined to give any details about the priest's whereabouts, other than to say he was in daily contact with Sodano, a former Navy chaplain. He also refused to discuss the church's investigation of the claims to date, saying it was hampered by having to interpret new rules approved in Dallas last month by the country's Roman Catholic bishops.

The new policy holds that any priest found to have molested children be removed from service.

"We are trying to figure out what direction do we go, in situations like we are in with Father Ralph," said Hundt, who is a personnel official for the Paterson Diocese. "It's so new, it's being carved out day by day."

Parishioners voiced support for Sodano and said they wanted him back.

His sister took up the microphone to defend him.

"My brother has spent 30 years of his life with young men and women," she said. "He is as shocked as anyone else at what is going on."

At one particularly emotional moment during the meeting, church member Judy Consentino raised her hand and said, "What about the bishop? Why was (Sodano) removed, while (Bishop Rodimer) was able to continue his service?"

The question was greeted with applause and cheers.

The reference was to a $250,000 settlement Rodimer made to settle a negligence claim filed after a fellow priest - with whom he shared a house on Long Beach Island - abused a child.

Hunt responded: "There has not been the same type of allegation made against the bishop."

Members from a neighboring parish, facing a similar situation with their own pastor, also attended the meeting.

In that case, which also broke in April, the Rev. Allen Stepien was removed after an old allegation of child sexual abuse surfaced.

Authorities said the case, reportedly to have involved a child in Clifton 20 years ago, was too old to prosecute. Members of his parish rallied around the popular priest with prayer services and a letter-writing campaign. But, as with Sodano, diocesan officials put him on leave and said they would investigate the claim.

"The parish has heard nothing from the bishop. We'd like to know what happened," St. Mark's parishioner Barbara Krukar said earlier in the day.

"It's been very difficult, and it was very hard on kids making confirmation and communion," she added. "St. Mark's wants its pastor back."

 
 

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