Diocese: Abuse Claim Was Handled Properly

By Krystal Knapp
March 5, 2004

TRENTON - The Roman Catholic Diocese of Trenton yesterday defended a local priest accused of sexually abusing a minor and stood behind its policy for handling abuse allegations.

A former city resident filed a civil suit last week against the Rev. Michael J. Burns and the Trenton diocese, claiming she was sexually abused by the priest when she was a student at the Sacred Heart School in Trenton more than 25 years ago.

Her lawyer said she filed the lawsuit after the diocese decided not to remove Burns from his post at St. Mary's Church in Bordentown.

But diocese officials yesterday said the church took no action because there was a lack of evidence that the priest sexually abused the alleged victim.

"After considering the facts, the board concluded that there was insufficient evidence that abuse of a minor had occurred," a statement from the diocese reads. "The board offered to provide the victim with reasonable counseling by a counselor of her choosing" and from December of 2002 until two days ago, "the diocese heard nothing from the victim or her lawyer."

According to the lawsuit, the woman recalled the abuse during counseling sessions in 2002, after having repressed it for many years.

She said she had just completed sixth grade at the now-defunct Sacred Heart elementary school and was being tutored by the priest in his office-bedroom suite in the Sacred Heart Church rectory when the alleged abuse took place, according to the lawsuit.

Over a five-month period from July to November 1975, the priest "touched the plaintiffs intimate parts, either directly or through clothing, for the purpose of sexually arousing or gratifying himself," the lawsuit alleges.

The woman, who now lives out of state, reported the abuse to the diocese in 2002, after the national sex abuse scandal broke. She met with the diocese's response team - the group formed to evaluate allegations - in September 2002.

Church officials said the diocese notified the Mercer County prosecutor about the claim and the alleged victim was flown in from out of state at the diocese's expense to tell her story to the diocese review board.

The board - characterized by the diocese as a group of professionals with expertise in behavioral sciences, law enforcement, the judiciary, administration and social work, most of them laypeople - serves as a confidential consultative body to the bishop.

Church officials said the review board spent extensive time with the woman and later with Burns "in an effort to determine what, if anything, happened between the two of them 30 years ago."

The woman was accompanied by her lawyer for support and was given the opportunity to provide the board with additional evidence, church officials said.

The lawyer for the victim, Marc Fliedner, says the woman was treated in a confrontational manner by priests on the review board and she felt her allegations were not treated seriously.

Yesterday diocesan officials vehemently denied the way Fliedner described the meeting.

"At the Diocese of Trenton, we treat every complaint of sexual abuse with the utmost seriousness," the statement reads. "We encourage victims of sexual abuse to report their allegations. The diocese has a victim assistance coordinator to provide assistance to victims and reports all allegations to the county prosecutor. The charges reported were no exception.

"Decisions in matters of this nature are extraordinarily difficult. However, the review board has never hesitated to act where the facts warranted it. The Diocese of Trenton has removed three priests in the last two years and in 1997 removed a fourth priest from active ministry. This case simply did not rise to that level."

Church officials said the diocese remains open to all victims. "In addition, the diocese will not turn its back on any new evidence provided by this complainant."

The diocese statement further lists the contact information for the response team coordinator, Monsignor Gregory Vaughan, and says any victim of abuse should contact him at (609) 406-7400.

In the civil suit, the woman is seeking money for attorney fees and counseling as well as punitive damages for pain and suffering and a jury trial.

The diocese's written statement says "The diocese looks forward to responding to the allegations at the appropriate time in the appropriate forum."


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