WEST NEW YORK (NJ)
NorthJersey.com [Woodland Park NJ]
November 30, 2021
By Deena Yellin
Most drivers and pedestrians who travel a part of Washington Street in West New York are oblivious to what the man whose name graces the thoroughfare has been accused of doing.
At least four people have said Msgr. Eugene Fanelli abused them when he was pastor at Our Lady of Libera Roman Catholic Church and they were children in the West New York parish.
“The fact that a street was named after him is heinous,” said Jason Schack, who filed a lawsuit in November alleging that Fanelli abused him for seven years, beginning when he was 8. “The sign needs to come down.”
In early November, Schack rallied in West New York with a number of clergy abuse victims and advocates who urged officials in the Hudson County town to remove the sign, which was erected to honor the longtime priest of the Newark Archdiocese, who was made a monsignor in 1989.
This isn’t the first time a tribute to a priest has become mired in controversy. Other edifices and streets around the nation have also become sore subjects after the clergy for whom they were named were accused of misconduct. In several cases, clergy abuse survivors demanded that the names of their abusers be erased from public display and were successful.
The Diocese of Fort Worth in Texas renamed a building that had been named in honor of a credibly accused priest. The City Council of Los Angeles changed the name of a street that had been named for a credibly accused priest. And a plaque marking a priest’s contributions to St. Paul the Apostle Church in Old Brookville on Long Island was replaced with a picture of the Virgin Mary after he was credibly accused of abuse, according to media reports.
“It further tortures survivors when the person who did this to them is being honored in some way,” said Terence McKiernan, president of Waltham, Massachusetts-based BishopAccountability.org, a national watchdog organization that has listed Fanelli as an accused priest.
West New York is weighing what to do about the street named for Fanelli. “The request is being considered,” said Luis Baez, the town’s municipal business administrator. “We want to stand on the right side of history.”
Baez, who has lived in West New York his entire life, said he never heard of any allegations against Fanelli before. “This was very disturbing information,” he said.
Maria Margiotta, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Newark, said the archdiocese “takes seriously all allegations of abuse” and remains “fully committed to our comprehensive programs and protocols to protect the faithful and to working with survivors of abuse, their legal representatives and law enforcement authorities in an ongoing effort to resolve allegations of past abuse.”
The Archdiocese of Newark has not updated its list of credibly accused clergy since its initial list was released in 2019, and Margiotta did not respond to NorthJersey.com’s questions about if and when the list will be updated with additional clergy.
Situated behind Our Lady of Libera parish and grammar school in West New York, the street section was dedicated to Fanelli, who served the parish for 38 years, in February 1991. It was the Sunday of his last Mass before he retired.
Fanelli died in May 2000 at age 84. His obituary notes that in honor of his 40th anniversary as a priest in 1980, he celebrated a private Mass in Rome with Pope John Paul II. By that point, he had allegedly abused at least four children.
Schack, 50, is the most recent to file a lawsuit naming him. Schack grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family that attended Our Lady of Libera.
He loved church and wanted to be an altar boy. But when he was in second grade, on the day of his first Communion, he said, Fanelli sexually assaulted him in the changing room for altar boys. “It was supposed to be a day of celebration,” Schack said. The abuse allegedly continued for several years.
“My whole life was turned upside down after that,” said Schack, who said he kept the abuse a secret for four decades, struggling with drug and alcohol abuse as a result.
When, in 2018, he finally revealed to his mother what happened, his mother confided the truth about his father’s death. “I had initially been told he died in his sleep,” Schack said. But in fact, he had died by suicide. And before he swallowed a bottle of painkillers, he told his wife that Fanelli had also abused him when he was a child.
Now a lapsed Catholic who lives in Ocean County, Schack discovered the street sign when visiting his hometown several months ago.
“I had a panic attack and couldn’t breathe. I felt shaken, wondering how they could name a street after a pedophile,” he said.
He’s not the only one asking that question.
Attorney John Baldante of Haddonfield is representing several clients who also said they were sexually abused by Fanelli as children.
A man identified as Paul Doe filed a lawsuit in 2019 saying Fanelli abused him for about a year beginning in 1976, when he was 11. “It was under the guise of helping him with his basketball acumen,” Baldante said, adding that the abuse took place in the rectory at Our Lady of Libera Church. Another suit was filed by Joel Doe alleging abuse by Fanelli.
Another man, John Pedone, said in an October 2021 lawsuit that Fanelli sexually abused him for four years beginning in 1970, when he was a 7-year-old student at Our Lady of Libera Elementary School.
The lawsuits were filed in court in Essex County.
“The fact that there’s a street named for Fanelli is outrageous and is indicative of how dismissive the archdiocese is of claims of clergy abuse,” Baldante said. “That act alone revictimizes these poor children who have lived with the sexual abuse for a lifetime.”
Schack said that after suffering in silence for years, he feels empowered by the prospect of bringing down the sign that “represents everything evil in the world.”
“I waited almost 40 years, through chaos and addiction and pretty much losing everything,” he said. “It’s time to take my life back. I won’t be silenced any more.”
Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.