The Record [Woodland Park NJ]
May 10, 2021
By Abbott Koloff
[Photo above: Newark Archbishop Peter Gerety in a 1986 photo. File/NorthJersey.com]
She believed that a high-ranking prelate in the Catholic Church who brought food to her impoverished family in Newark — often praising her for being “such a smart and pretty young girl” — had been sent by God.
But then Archbishop Peter Leo Gerety, the leader of the Newark Archdiocese in the 1970s and 1980s, allegedly took the girl, who was 5 years old at the time, to his bedroom in the rectory of the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart and instructed her to lie on his bed.
Now a 49-year-old woman, she said in a recently filed lawsuit that Gerety sexually abused her several times in 1976 — the first accusation of sexual abuse to be made public against the late archbishop, who had been considered a pivotal figure in the 1970s for his role in implementing reforms of the Vatican II Conference that modernized the church.
It is one of two recently filed lawsuits that contain allegations against Gerety — the other accuses him of covering up alleged abuse by a North Jersey priest who was removed from ministry years later when additional accusers came forward.
The complaint alleging that Gerety abused a girl does not identify the plaintiff, but she and her attorney provided The Record and NorthJersey.com with a sworn affidavit that goes into detail about the allegations. She wrote that Gerety — who gave her family rides to religious services — molested her in his bedroom at the Cathedral Basilica, and that she felt helpless to stop him.
“As a child, I misguidedly thought that God had specifically sent [Archbishop] Gerety to my Mom and family to rescue us and help us get food to eat,” the woman, who lives in Pennsylvania, wrote in the affidavit, which was notarized and provided with her name and signature redacted. “I felt I had no other option than to do as [Archbishop] Gerety instructed.”
Gerety is accused in a separate lawsuit of ignoring a complaint brought by a Seton Hall University student in 1984 against a priest who was part of a campus ministry program. The priest, Peter Cheplic, was removed from ministry more than 20 years later after several men who attended St. Matthew Church in Ridgefield said he got them drunk and abused them in the 1980s.
This is not the first time Gerety has been accused of failing to protect children. He allegedly approved a priest’s transfer to Missouri in 1983 — after the cleric was criminally convicted of sexually abusing a boy in Jersey City and had changed his name.
And the archdiocese had received another complaint of sexual abuse against Gerety in 2019 from decades before, according to Greg Gianforcaro, an attorney who represented the man making the accusation. But archdiocese officials said in a letter that they could not substantiate the allegation and closed the case.
Gerety, known as a progressive bishop who made great strides in bringing women and minorities into leadership roles in the church, led the Newark Archdiocese from 1974 to 1986. The archdiocese oversees parishes in Bergen, Essex, Hudson and Union counties.
His successor as leader of the archdiocese was Theodore McCarrick, who has been accused of sexually abusing several children and adult seminary students, and who was stripped of his clerical status as a cardinal two years ago. McCarrick also has been accused of covering up sexual abuse by priests under his authority.
The woman who accuses Gerety wrote in her affidavit that she grew up in Newark near the Cathedral Basilica of Sacred Heart. Her mother “worked long hours as a seamstress” and Gerety allegedly offered to baby sit. One day, she wrote, Gerety took her by the hand to his bedroom. She described the room as being simply furnished, with the prelate’s bed pushed up against a wall and an old Bible on a table.
“Gerety told me to relax and close my eyes and informed me that what he was going to do with me was part of what God required and wanted me to do,” she wrote, adding that the archbishop gave her a warning: “Do not say anything about this because it will hurt your mother. This is our secret.”
After he allegedly molested her, she wrote that he walked her back to her home. The abuse allegedly occurred three or four times, always in the rectory bedroom. She wrote that it stopped after she protested being left with the archbishop and an aunt offered to watch her. She remained silent about the allegations “as I had been instructed” until she was 13, when she told her older sister.
“My older sister cried when I told her and she said she felt guilty because she hadn’t or couldn’t protect me,” she wrote. “However, neither of us ever mentioned the abuse to our mother.”
The woman wrote that the abuse left her “disgusted and repulsed by men” and led to suicidal thoughts in her 20s and to “bouts of anger” that continue to this day. She said she anticipates requiring “counseling, therapy and other treatment as a consequence of this sexual abuse for the remainder of my life.”
The lawsuit names as defendants the Newark Archdiocese and Gerety’s estate. The complaint is among more than 350 that have been filed against the Catholic Church in New Jersey since the state implemented a two-year suspension of the statute of limitations in civil sex-abuse cases, starting in December of 2019. The woman filed the suit in March and wrote the affidavit in April.
Her attorney, John Baldante, also filed the lawsuit accusing Gerety of covering up alleged abuse by Cheplic, who was removed from ministry in 2006 when the archdiocese paid three men to settle their claims of abuse. Newark church officials have acknowledged that there is a fourth complaint that was found to be credible.
The archdiocese declined to answer questions about the recent lawsuits, saying it doesn’t comment on matters in litigation.
Cheplic, according to court papers, has been living at the St. John Vianney Residence for retired priests in Rutherford. The archdiocese has previously declined to identify priests living at that home and did not respond to questions about Cheplic’s residence. The priest did not respond to a message left at the home.
Kevin Toth, the plaintiff, accused Cheplic of groping him in 1984 when he was a 17-year-old freshman at Seton Hall. Toth had signed up for a campus ministry program and was given a list of priests who “might be interested in mentoring him.” One of them was Cheplic, a pastor at Our Lady Help of Christians parish in East Orange who was looking for an assistant.
They met several times on Seton Hall’s South Orange campus before going to dinner. Toth alleges that the priest tried to get him to drink beer at dinner, but that he declined. After dinner, Cheplic asked him to sit in the priest’s car to continue their conversation, the suit says.
“Fr. Cheplic lunged across the seat and threw himself on the top of Kevin,” the suit says.
The priest allegedly groped him under his clothes and said: “I can’t resist you. You are gorgeous.”
When Toth pulled away and said he couldn’t believe what had just happened, Cheplic allegedly replied: “Well, you said you didn’t have a girlfriend. I thought we were getting close.” According to the complaint, the priest then said: “If you say anything about this, I will destroy you.”
Toth reported the alleged assault the next day to a priest who was Seton Hall’s campus ministry faculty adviser, according to the lawsuit. That priest “dismissed Kevin’s complaint, and instead accused him of overreacting.” Toth later told a counselor at the school, who took no action, according to the lawsuit. The priest and the counselor have since died. Seton Hall University declined to comment on the lawsuit’s allegations.
The plaintiff, who lives in Scotch Plains, was not available to be interviewed for this story.
Toth told his parents about the assault “shortly after the incident” and his father contacted Gerety’s office, according to the lawsuit. According to court documents, the archbishop’s office “was also dismissive of Kevin’s complaint, again ignored the report of sexual abuse, and again blamed Kevin and accused Kevin of overreacting or making up a tale because he didn’t get what he wanted from Fr. Cheplic in terms of a job.”
Baldante, the attorney who filed the suit, said his client’s father was assured Gerety had been informed of the complaint.
The lawsuit says that Gerety and others who allegedly ignored Toth’s complaint were part of “a systemic and institutional effort to conceal and cover up the sexually predatory behavior of Fr. Cheplic and other predator priests that preyed upon and sexually abused children within the Archdiocese of Newark.”
Gerety, who was born in Connecticut, was known for his outreach to minorities, learning Spanish to connect with a growing Latino community and making it a point to minister to the African American community. He participated in the pivotal civil rights March on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a Dream” speech.
He had come to Newark in 1974 after serving as bishop of Portland, Maine. He implemented a sex education program in archdiocese schools and continued concentrating on social justice issues. He was the first leader of the Newark Archdiocese to live in the cathedral rectory in a blighted section of the city.
Years after Gerety’s retirement, questions surfaced about the way he handled the case of a priest who pleaded guilty to charges related to the sexual abuse of a 17-year-old boy at St. Aloysius parish in Jersey City in 1982.
Carmen Sita, the priest, was sent to a New Mexico treatment center run by a religious order as part of his probationary sentence. While there, he changed his name to Gerald Howard before moving to a diocese in Missouri.
In 2009, the Archdiocese of Newark, the Diocese of Jefferson City, and the order that ran the treatment center paid a $600,000 cash settlement to a man who said he had been abused by the priest at a church in Booneville, Missouri in the 1980s.
In 2013, the Newark Archdiocese paid another $650,00 to five men who said they were abused by the priest in Jersey City in the 1970s and 1980s.
Gianforcaro, who represented the Jersey City men, said Gerety wrote a letter in August, 1983 to Missouri church officials giving his “full approval” to the transfer and calling the cleric “a good priest.” It is not clear whether Missouri church officials were aware of the cleric’s criminal history.
Howard, who has since been laicized, sexually abused at least three boys in Missouri, according to criminal records. He was arrested in 2010 and pleaded guilty in 2014 to two counts of forcible sodomy and one count of attempted forcible sodomy. Missouri records show he was released from prison in 2019 and resides in St. Louis, where he is registered as a sex offender.
Abbott Koloff is an investigative reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his watchdog work that safeguards our communities and democracy, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.