Asbury Park Press
July 23, 2021
By Kathleen Hopkins
FREEHOLD – Under the cloud of sexual abuse allegations for almost three years, the former longtime pastor of St. Veronica R.C. Church in Howell walked out of the Monmouth County Courthouse Friday after a judge acquitted him of the charges, and said he will continue to pray for his accuser.
After Superior Court Judge Ellen Torregrossa-O’Connor found the 80-year-old priest not guilty of three counts of sexual assault on a child more than two decades ago, the Rev. Henry Brendan Williams said he was “certainly very relieved’’ by the verdict.
“I continue to pray for the accuser,’’ Williams added, speaking outside the courtroom.
“I feel very compassionate toward her, the difficulties she’s had going on for many years,” the priest said. “I do keep her in prayer, and her family as well. I just pray for the whole family.’’
“I haven’t had too many clients in my career pray for the people who are making accusations against them,” said Williams’ attorney, Robert Konzelmann, a veteran defense attorney who said he is retiring upon the conclusion of this case.
The accuser and her parents left the courtroom before the judge finished rendering her verdict.
Thomas Fichter, assistant Monmouth County prosecutor, declined to comment afterward.
The accuser, a 34-year-old Colts Neck woman with multiple mental disorders, came forward in 2018 with allegations that Williams, a close family friend, molested her on three occasions in the late-1990s, when she was a child
Williams, who was pastor of St. Veronica from 1979 until his retirement in 2012, was charged with molesting the child at the Shrimp Box restaurant in Point Pleasant Beach, sometime between May and September 1998, when the accuser was 11; again at her home during a dinner party later that fall; and again during an anniversary party at the Crystal Point Inn in Point Pleasant sometime between March 1999 and February 2000, when she was 12.
Williams chose to have the judge rather than a jury decide the case.
Torregrossa-O’Connor, delivering an almost three-hour verbal opinion to support her verdict, said the state did not prove the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt, and particularly didn’t prove precisely when the alleged incidents occurred or what the accuser’s age was at the time.
Under New Jersey law, to gain a conviction, the state would have had to prove that the accuser was younger than 13 at the time of the incidents and that Williams, while at least four years older than her, touched her intimate parts to degrade or humiliate her or for his own sexual gratification, the judge said.
Critical and central to a conviction was “not just whether each of these offenses occurred, it is when they occurred and whether (the accuser) was under the age of 13,” the judge said.
When the accuser told a detective she may have been as old as 14 when one of the incidents occurred, the detective acted surprised and told her she was probably 12, because she wouldn’t have been downstairs among guests in her home in her pajamas if she were older, the judge noted.
Meanwhile, the victim testified she was wearing basketball shorts, not pajamas, during that incident, the judge said.
Torregrossa-O’Connor cited inconsistencies about the timing of the incidents, questions about why the accuser waited so long to come forward and her refusal to identify the person to whom she first revealed her allegations — among issues that undermined the state’s case.
She also cited testimony by a forensic psychiatrist that the accuser’s mental health issues, including obsessive compulsive disorder and anorexia nervosa, would make her prone to suggestion, memory problems, misinterpreting events and confabulation, or making up things that are untrue and believing they are true.
“I would not and did not dismiss her testimony simply because she suffers from those conditions,” the judge said, while adding that the accuser testified “bravely.”
While Williams, when questioned by detectives in 2019, said he remembered giving the accuser an affectionate squeeze on the leg while having dinner with her and her family at the Shrimp Box and later writing her a letter of apology after learning she was offended by it, the judge said she could not find beyond a reasonable doubt that he did that for sexual gratification.
Also lending doubt to the case were surprise witnesses who came forward after reading an article in the Asbury Park Press about the accuser’s testimony at the trial. The surprise witnesses, a married couple who are retired schoolteachers, testified they both worked at the Shrimp Box in the late 1990s and said there were no tablecloths on the tables in the casual eatery, the judge said.
That contradicted the accuser’s testimony that long tablecloths hid Williams’ molestation of her during the dinner there with her parents, brother and Williams. The accuser’s father testified the Shrimp Box was a fancy restaurant with table-to-floor tablecloths.
Detectives did not bother to investigate whether the restaurant had tablecloths or other details to corroborate the accuser’s allegations, but based their case on her statements and that of her parents, the judge said.
“The court is simply left with more questions than answers as to what happened at the Shrimp Box,’’ Torregrossa-O’Conner said. “I’m left with an honest uncertainty as to what occurred.”
She said the accuser’s account that Williams molested her with one hand under the tablecloth while eating a buttered roll with the other as her family sat at the same table in a busy restaurant “is somewhat curious,” and it “would be extremely brazen” for an abuser to pick such a crowded venue to molest someone.
“Is it possible?” the judge asked. “Of course. Has the state proven that happened beyond a reasonable doubt? No, I cannot say that. The inconsistencies in testimony just further undermine that confidence.
“There are also multiple unanswered questions,” Torregrossa-O’Connor said. “I am also troubled by the two-decade delay (in reporting the alleged abuse.)”
The fact that the accuser did not tell detectives about the second and third alleged incidents of molestation when she came forward with the first allegation lent further doubt to the case, the judge said.
Williams and his attorney credited the power of prayer with the outcome of the case, including that the two surprise witnesses read about the case 1,000 miles away and felt compelled to come to court to testify on the priest’s behalf.
“All the prayers, people who have been calling in and telling us that they are with us in prayer – without that, the last couple of years would have been a real torment,” Williams said.
Now that the case is over, Williams said he plans to move to his native Ireland.
Kathleen Hopkins, a reporter in New Jersey since 1985, covers crime, court cases, legal issues, unsolved mysteries and just about every major murder trial to hit Monmouth and Ocean counties. Contact her at email@example.com.