Abuse survivors say Catholic church has failed to disclose hundreds of cases in NJ

NorthJersey.com [Woodland Park NJ]

January 30, 2023

By Deena Yellin and Abbott Koloff

Four years ago, when New Jersey’s Catholic dioceses released a list of 188 clergy who had been “credibly accused” of sexually assaulting children, church leaders vowed that they would continue to update the names as new allegations arose.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin, leader of the Newark Archdiocese, wrote that he hoped releasing the names would be “an expression of our commitment to protecting our children” and “a new level of transparency in the way we report and respond to allegations.”

But today, Newark’s inventory of 63 credibly accused clerics remains unchanged − even after hundreds of sex abuse lawsuits have been filed against the Archdiocese and accusers have received settlements from a fund established to compensate victims. Numerous accused priests are not on the list.

Maria Margiotta, an Archdiocese spokeswoman, declined to share any details about potential updates to the list and did not respond to a request to interview Cardinal Tobin.

“At this time, we are limited in what information can be shared or published to the list given pending litigation,” Margiotta said in a recent email. “However, the Archdiocese of Newark’s steadfast commitment to protecting the faithful has never wavered. We have continued to remove from active ministry any priest or individual credibly accused of abuse or misconduct, and to disclose their name to the parish community.”

She declined to say how many priests have been removed since the lists were published.

“That’s more smoke and mirrors,” said Mark Crawford, head of New Jersey’s chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP. “If they disclosed to the parish community, what stops them from disclosing to the community at large? They’re doing the bare minimum even if that’s true.”

Few names in four years

The state’s four other Catholic dioceses have a similar record. Since the “credibly accused” lists were released in February 2019, the Trenton and Paterson dioceses have each added one priest while Camden added five clerics and removed one. The Diocese of Metuchen list has not changed. Clergy abuse survivors and their advocates say they’re frustrated that more names have not been made public by the church.

In interviews, diocese officials said they are waiting until lawsuits accusing priests are completed before reviewing the allegations and determining whether they merit being additions to the lists.

“Additional names will be added if the priests are determined to have been credibly accused, a process that would include investigation by relevant law enforcement where the pertinent criminal statute of limitations has not expired, followed by a review by the Diocesan Review Board,” said Michael Walsh, a Camden diocese spokesman.

Crawford said the dioceses are ignoring hundreds of settlements reached between accusers and a church-funded victims compensation fund, many involving priests who have yet to be placed on the credibly-accused lists. While the settlements are not considered a determination of guilt, victims’ advocates said clergy who have been the subject of such payouts should be made public.

“If the church paid someone compensation for their assault, that means it’s a credible case,” Crawford said. “They don’t pay out every case that comes forward. The Cardinal himself said that the list will be a living, breathing document and that they would add to it. The church has long promised transparency and it never happened.”

New Jersey’s five dioceses currently include 194 clerics on their lists, according to a survey by the USA Today Network New Jersey.

Most of the those originally included were deceased or had already been removed from ministry, advocates noted. The dioceses declined to include clergy who were from religious orders, saying those communities operate independently.

“The blueprint for the dioceses across the country has been to provide a nominal list and promise to update it and then not update it,” said Mitch Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has represented hundreds of clergy abuse victims in New Jersey and across the country. “To not update the list places children in jeopardy because the public needs to know the names of the predator priests.”

What does ‘credibly accused’ mean?

Dioceses typically rely on review boards that include lay people and church officials to determine whether accusations are believable, at least for priests who are still living and deny the allegations. The next step is a closed-door church tribunal, which may require additional proof. Clerics have been acquitted in such trials and returned to ministry even after review boards determined they had been credibly accused.

The New Jersey lists were made public several months after the state Attorney General’s Office announced it was investigating allegations that Catholic priests had sexually abused children and that church officials had covered up some of their actions for decades.

The Attorney General’s Office did not respond last week to an inquiry about the status of the investigation or when any findings might be released.

Months after the lists were published, New Jersey passed a law suspending the civil statute of limitations on sex abuse cases for a two-year window. More than 800 lawsuits were filed under that provision accusing Catholic clerics of abuse. Even after the window closed in late 2021, the law allows victims to sue until age 55.

The lists, meanwhile, remain largely unchanged. Advocates for abuse survivors say some of the omissions are glaring.

The Rev. William Dowd was removed from St. Luke’s Church in Ho-Ho-Kus in 2002 after two men said he abused them when they were children at Immaculate Conception parish in Montclair. Dowd was acquitted in a church trial and returned to ministry in 2007. He no longer served in a parish but was chaplain for the New York Giants football team when it won the 2008 Super Bowl.

He said in a 2012 interview that he had returned “just in time to get that Super Bowl ring.”

Seven years later, however, one of his accusers from Montclair filed a lawsuit after the statute of limitations was lifted. The claim was eventually settled by the victim’s compensation program; two other lawsuits against Dowd are pending.

Greg Gianforcaro, the Montclair man’s attorney, said his client received a “serious offer” to settle his claim, and that clerics who have been the subject of such settlements should be placed on the church’s credibly accused list.

“To me there is no doubt he should be on the list,” Gianforcaro said of Dowd. “There are more that should be on the list.”

The Newark Archdiocese has not responded to requests for information about Dowd’s status as a priest. But when a reporter reached Dowd by phone last week, he said he was no longer serving as a clergyman. He declined to comment further.

‘Grave concerns’ about Short Hills priest

In another case, Monsignor George Trabold stepped down from St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Short Hills in 2014 after an accuser said the priest abused him at St. John the Evangelist in Bergenfield in the 1970s.

In an October 2015 letter, the Newark Archdiocese told Gianforcaro, the alleged victim’s attorney, that there was “sufficient evidence to support [the accuser’s] allegation.” Weeks later, church officials sent letters to the Bergenfield and Short Hills parishes saying a review board had determined the allegations “cause some grave concerns,” and that Trabold “continues to assert his innocence.”

Gianforcaro said the accuser received a monetary settlement in 2016. Church officials have said a tribunal heard the case and came to a conclusion several years ago, but the Archdiocese has declined to make the verdict public. Trabold, who died last year, was never included on the list of credibly accused priests.

Margiotta, the Archdiocese spokeswoman, declined to disclose the trial’s verdict. “Regarding Monsignor George Trabold, he has passed, the matter was resolved, and the parish was notified,” she wrote in an email.

Gianforcaro said he’s settled between 50 and 60 cases with the church through the New Jersey Independent Victims Compensation Program, and they include accusations against clerics whose names are not on the lists.

He said he believes the lists were published as an advertisement for the compensation program, which provides settlements to victims who agree not to sue the church. The fund’s payouts typically are less than people would receive by settling a lawsuit, advocates have said.

“The list had nothing to do with any desire by the church to be transparent,” according to Gianforcaro.

As of last February, the fund said it had paid out $40 million to 348 people, an average of about $115,000 per claim. Camille Biros, who administers the program, declined last week to provide an update.

Paterson, Trenton add names

In the Paterson Diocese, the Rev. Andrew Perretta, formerly of Sacred Heart parish in Clifton, faces three abuse lawsuits. One alleges that he abused a boy between the ages of 7 and 9 at Sacred Heart in the early 2000s.

Kenneth Mullaney, the diocese’s attorney, said Perretta was removed from Sacred Heart “subsequent to 2019” and is not allowed to publicly function as a cleric, at least until the suits against him are concluded and his case is heard by a church review board. Perretta has denied the charges, the attorney said.

Mullaney said the Paterson diocese won’t hold review board hearings for living priests while lawsuits are pending against them, because that would compromise their ability to defend themselves in civil court.

“Once this nightmare is over, there will be a review board hearing,” he said.

Mullaney did add one name to the Paterson list shortly after it was initially published: the Rev. John Hewetson, who died in 1987 and who is listed by the diocese as having multiple accusations.

“After the diocese’s list was posted, someone asked me if I had investigated Hewetson. I had never heard of him.” Mullaney said. “I had his file retrieved and I reviewed it. As a result of that review, I and I alone decided that his name should be added to the list.”

Hewetson, a Franciscan priest, served at 11 churches in the Paterson Diocese and the Archdiocese of Newark, including Our Lady of Victories in Jersey City and St. Joseph’s and St. George in Paterson. His last post was at St. Paul in Clifton in 1967 before he went on leave. He retired in 1973.

Mullaney said that the list will be amended “when I feel that a priest has been credibly accused.”

The Trenton diocese has also added one name: Gregory D. Vaughan, who was removed from his position as a pastor of a Holmdel parish in March 2019. The diocese lists him as having multiple accusers.

No other priests have been added, despite lawsuits and settlements accusing clerics who were not on the initial list. That includes the Rev. Joseph Farrell, who was removed as pastor of St. Isidore the Farmer parish in Plumsted Township in 2021 after a lawsuit alleging he abused a 13-year-old boy 30 years earlier.

Rayanne Bennett, a spokeswoman for the Trenton Diocese, said that she could not comment on cases with active litigation.

“A determination of credibility may be made as warranted after a case has gone through the litigation process, at which point the list of credibly accused clergy would be updated accordingly,” she said in an email.

Bankruptcy protection

The Diocese of Camden − which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October 2020 and faces more than 300 claims of clergy sexual abuse − has added five names to its list and removed one.

Walsh, the diocese spokesman, said the names were added as victims came forward to seek settlements with the victims compensation program and through bankruptcy court proceedings. He said the five priests were “deemed to have been credibly accused.”

The priests included Kenneth Johnston, Daniel James Norton and John Lawrence O’Connor, who are deceased; Patrick Joseph Mulligan, who was defrocked; and Paul C. Wise, who was allowed to remain in the priesthood but barred from public duties.

Camden removed one former cleric, Alfred Vasapolli, who asked the diocese to reexamine his inclusion on the list after it was published in 2019. Walsh said the priest initially was included because of a claim made against him in 1994, after he left the priesthood. The case was settled but the diocese did not have a review board at the time to determine its merits, Walsh said.

He said no other claims have been made against Vasapolli. A diocesan review board took a new look at the case and determined “there was not sufficient evidence to suggest that the claim was credible,” Walsh said.

More than 50 lawsuits were filed against the Camden Diocese before it filed for bankruptcy. Those claims and others are now being handled in bankruptcy court. Gianforcaro, the lawyer for abuse victims, said that may be why Camden has been relatively open to updating its list.

“They filed for bankruptcy,” he said, “which means that no additional lawsuits can be filed against them, so they cannot be hurt.”

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.

Email: yellin@northjersey.com

Twitter: @deenayellin