Accused Priests Still Cloaked in Confidentiality
Newark Archdiocese Punishes but Still Doesn't Publicize Credible Cases of Sex Abuse

By Jeff Diamant
The Star-Ledger
July 26, 2005

When the Newark Archdiocese determined in 2003 that the Rev. Gerald Ruane had been credibly accused of sex abuse, it accepted his retirement and quietly banned him from presenting himself as a priest in public. The diocese also banned him from wearing clerical garb.

So this spring, his accuser, Michael Iatesta, was outraged to learn Ruane had just concelebrated Mass in front of more than 100 people at a Catholic shrine in Morris County and appeared in his priestly vestments on a television interview from Rome after the death of Pope John Paul II.

The archdiocese privately reprimanded Ruane, but has not changed what critics call a potentially dangerous practice that allows many credibly accused priests to benefit from a cover of confidentiality. Often, critics say, that lets them act as priests even when they have been barred from ministry.

"I want Father Ruane's name to be known to the parish priests in the archdiocese, for them to know ... so that they don't (let him) say Mass or to present himself as a priest," said Iatesta, one of at least two people to accuse Ruane of sexual misconduct, according to the Essex County Prosecutor's Office.

Ruane has denied the accusation, according to the archdiocese, and lives in New Jersey. He could not be reached for comment.

Iatesta, meanwhile, might not be complaining today if his case had happened in any of the other four Roman Catholic dioceses in New Jersey.

The Camden, Metuchen, Paterson and Trenton dioceses all publicly acknowledge, in different ways, when a priest has been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors. The Newark Archdiocese does so only if the priest in question is a pastor or if it is asked directly about a specific priest by a journalist.

The controversy surrounding Ruane and the disparity in policies among the dioceses highlight a delicate problem for the Catholic Church: How aggressively should dioceses spread the word about clergy believed to have sexually abused children.

When the clergy sex scandal gained national attention in 2002, bishops addressed in clear fashion what everyone agreed were the main problems: Bishops letting abusive priests remain in the ministry, hiding their crimes from laity and protecting them from law enforcement.

Now, priests credibly accused of abuse are permanently barred from ministry and often formally removed from the priesthood. But dioceses around the country still take different approaches on how to tell the faithful.

The Dallas Charter, a set of guidelines adopted by the bishops in 2002 to improve how they handle sex abuse cases, stresses the importance of communicating to the public about abuse but also could be read to give bishops wide discretion to withhold abusive priests' names, said Sheila Kelly, deputy director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection of the U.S. bishops conference.

The relevant section of the Charter, Article 7, says dioceses "are to be open and transparent in communicating with the public about sexual abuse of minors by clergy within the confines of respect for the privacy and the reputation of the individuals involved. This is especially so with regard to informing parish and other church communities directly affected by ministerial misconduct involving minors."

The Newark Archdiocese's approach, spokesman James Goodness said, reflects its continuing concern with protecting the reputation of an accused priest.

Goodness said it is not necessary to make public names of credibly accused priests, as long as they are not pastors whose increased visibility, he said, merits a public explanation.

He said credibly accused priests like Ruane -- who can say Mass only in private, by himself or with close relatives or friends -- are not a danger because people for whom they say Mass are more likely to know their situations.

But the Rev. Robert Hoatson, an archdiocese priest who counsels abuse victims, called that explanation naive, saying it shows the archdiocese relies too much upon the goodwill of men who have been credibly accused of sexual interaction with children or teens.

"They're relying on the priests' ethical standards, but these are people, in many cases, who may be without ethics at all," he said.

Iatesta said the archdiocese's approach also effectively helped the priest in another way. For years, the Middletown company Catholic Focus Productions marketed and sold Ruane's books and lecture tapes, giving him valuable publicity. The Web site administrator removed Ruane's materials last month, only after learning, from Iatesta, that the archdiocese barred him from ministry.

Iatesta said Ruane -- who is 71, was ordained in 1960 and was former director of the Sacred Heart Institute of Healing -- sexually molested him throughout his adolescence, after having met him while Iatesta's father was dying of cancer.

In April, on Holy Thursday, Ruane appeared at a Mass in the chapel of St. Joseph's Shrine in Stirling, wore clerical garb and concelebrated Mass in front of at least 100 people, said the Rev. Peter Krebs, the shrine's director.

Nobody at St. Joseph's knew of Ruane's restrictions, and if they had, they would not have let him concelebrate Mass, Krebs said.

"Honestly, nobody here knew anything about that," Krebs said. They did not learn Ruane's status until days later when Iatesta denounced him at a news conference for publicly presenting himself as a priest.

Goodness characterized it as an isolated incident stemming from the priest's misunderstanding and poor judgment. He said it does not prove that better monitoring, or more public revelations, are called for.

"Exceptions such as the one involving Father Ruane are rare, but they do happen. ... It causes us to be more vigilant and to seek to improve our program," Monsignor Robert Emery, the archdiocese's vicar general, wrote to Iatesta in an e-mail last month, noting that auditors from the bishops conference have approved how the archdiocese monitors credibly accused priests.

Kelly said revealing a credibly accused priest's name often leads other victims to come forward and help an investigation, but that it also can decrease priests' morale in a diocese.

"I know it often brings forth other victims," she said. "But I also know it makes diocesan priests feel like, 'one call to the chancery and I'm out.' It's had some negative effects on clergy morale. I think some bishops are cautious about that."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.