Ex-Priest's 'Legal Matter': Sex Charge
By Abbott Koloff
May 30, 2004
Dover -- A Catholic priest who left his job two weeks ago, when church officials said he had to take care of an old legal matter, was charged more than two decades ago with sexual abuse and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child.
Monsignor Ronald Tully, 67, left his job as pastor of Sacred Heart parish when church officials told parishioners in a vaguely-worded statement that an unspecified legal matter had resurfaced and would require his full attention.
That legal matter, according to police records, involved criminal charges filed against Tully on April 7, 1979, in Riverhead, N.Y. Tully was working as a priest in the Paterson Diocese at the time, at a high school in Passaic, but apparently also had a residence in Riverhead, on Long Island.
Church officials said last week that Tully agreed to leave his Dover job after a discussion with church administrators and that he no longer is allowed to function as a priest.
"He is not to perform any priestly functions," said Marianna Thompson, spokeswoman for the Paterson Roman Catholic Diocese. "He's not to wear the garb of a priest or refer to himself as 'Father.'"
She also said Friday that Tully is living "in seclusion" but would not elaborate.
According to an agreement reached by Catholic bishops at a conference in Dallas two years ago, priests who have abused children are not permitted to function as priests. They are required either to live a life of penance in seclusion or to be removed from the priesthood entirely in a process called laicization.
Thompson said she could not say more about the matter because of the way it was handled by the legal system in New York state 25 years ago.
Police records from 25 years ago show that Tully was arrested at 1:30 a.m. on April 7, 1979, and was charged with first-degree sexual abuse and two counts of child endangerment. But the case didn't come up in a check of court records in Suffolk County and officials with the county prosecutor's office did not provide any details about it. They said they were still looking for the case file Friday, almost two weeks after they had been asked for information about it.
Thompson said the diocese has received letters from parishioners in support of Tully. Several parishioners interviewed last week referred to Tully as a good priest and said they were surprised by the charges against him. Tully had been installed at Sacred Heart in 1983, four years after the abuse charges were filed.
"He's been my friend for 21 years," said Brian Drury, a deacon at the church. "I would trust him with anything. They told us at Mass (two weeks ago) that he had resigned and that we were going to get a new administrator. It's very hard to believe this of the man I know."
"I liked him," said Barbara Decker, who had been attending Sacred Heart for the past few months. "He was very personable. He gave such a beautiful Mother's Day homily that I was crying."
How long church officials had known about the criminal charges against Tully was unknown last week. The Dallas agreement, which took effect two years ago, requires church officials to remove any priest from a parish if they knew about credible allegations of child abuse. Thompson was asked whether church officials knew about the charges when they were filed in 1979.
"That is unclear," she said.
Mark Serrano, a former Mendham resident and advocate for victims of sexual abuse by priests, said last week that the Tully case raised questions about the actions of church officials.
"His removal was done in the characteristic way, with no public acknowledgement of a charge of sex abuse," said Serrano, a spokesman for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
"Where is Father Tully now, and who is watching him? What outreach has been done to the (Sacred Heart) parish where he most recently worked to make sure there are no other victims?"
Serrano said his group plans to visit the parish in the near future, to talk to parishioners and to seek out possible abuse victims.
Sister Mary Aquin McDonald, who was principal of Pope Pius XXII High School in Passaic when Tully worked there in 1979, said last week that she had been told that Tully left his job in Dover. She said she had no memory of a 1979 incident.
"I don't know anything about that," said the nun, who now works in South Jersey. "You can ask the diocese."
Patrick Henry, now a Suffolk County, N.Y., judge and the county prosecutor at the time charges were filed against Tully, said last week that he had no recollection of the case. He said he asked prosecutors to check on it but said they had not found any record of the case.
What happened to the records, and how the case was disposed, remain unclear. In some cases in New York state, records are expunged in what is called an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. In such cases, records are wiped clean after a defendant, without admitting guilt, agrees to perform community service or to complete some sort of rehabilitative program.
Church officials said there are no plans to have a church review board examine the Tully case or to hold a church trial. They said they typically hold such trials in cases where priests deny charges against them. They also said they are in the process of sending paperwork to church officials in Rome for a review of the way the case was handled by the Paterson Diocese.
Abbott Koloff can be reached at email@example.com or (973) 989-0652.
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