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  Diocese to Judge Priest in Sex Case
Vatican Orders a Church Trial

By John Chadwick
The Record [Bergen County NJ]
January 8, 2004

The Vatican has begun deciding the fate of North Jersey priests accused of molesting children.

Church authorities in Rome have directed the Paterson Diocese to conduct a church trial for the Rev. James A.-D. Smith, 73, accused of molesting a Fair Lawn boy more than 100 times in the 1960s while serving at churches in Clifton and Paterson.

The Vatican has also waived a trial for the Rev. John H. Dericks, 88, a former Pequannock pastor accused of molesting a teenage girl in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The decisions are essentially the first time that Rome has weighed in on the spate of North Jersey cases that surfaced after the nationwide church scandal erupted two years ago.

Under a disciplinary procedure adopted by the nation's bishops in 2002, the Vatican reviews cases that the dioceses have found credible, then decides which ones can be prosecuted in the church's legal system. Most cases can't go to state criminal courts because they are past the statute of limitations.

Smith is the first local priest slated for church trial. If found guilty, he faces removal from the priesthood or from public ministry.

"The Smith trial is going to be the first trial the Paterson Diocese has ever conducted along these lines," Ken Mullaney, a lawyer for the diocese, said Wednesday. "There is no precedent for this." Indeed, church trials are rare. Canon law typically is used for marriage annulments and church property transactions. Trials are conducted before a three-judge panel, one of whom can be a layperson, while the other two are priests. Smith has the right to be represented by a canon lawyer, who can be lay or clerical. No date has been set for the trial.

He is accused of drawing a 12-year-old boy into a sexual relationship that lasted four years. At the time, he was serving as a priest at Our Lady of Victories in Paterson and Sacred Heart Church in Clifton. His last official position with the church was as an assistant pastor in a Roxbury Township church. He has been placed on leave and cannot be reached for comment.

The diocese recently settled a lawsuit brought by his accuser for an undisclosed amount of money.

Dericks, the former pastor at Holy Spirit Church in Pequannock, was accused of molesting a student who was attending DePaul Diocesan High School. He also allegedly had an affair with the victim's mother.

In the early 1990s, Dericks paid his accuser a $25,000 settlement, though he has denied the accusations. He is on leave and could not be reached for comment.

The Vatican made no determination on his innocence or guilt, a spokeswoman for Paterson Bishop Frank J. Rodimer said. "Because of his advanced age, the Vatican said he is not to stand trial," Marianna Thompson said. "Bishop Rodimer is taking time for prayer and reflection in order to give him instruction on how he is to live his life." Rodimer has the option of limiting Dericks' ability to perform priestly functions, such as celebrating Mass.

But a Mendham priest who is serving as an adviser to the accuser, said the diocese needs to do more to acknowledge the pain the woman suffered.

"She has never been fully validated," said the Rev. Kenneth Lasch. "The bishop needs to make a public statement apologizing for her suffering." Meanwhile, Thompson said the diocese is waiting for the Vatican to determine what should be done with five other priests accused of sexual abuse.

 
 

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