Priest Gets a Mixed Verdict in New Jersey Sex Abuse Case

By Robert Hanley
New York Times
April 12, 2003

A Roman Catholic priest was convicted here today of one charge and acquitted of another in a sexual abuse case involving a teenage boy in his parish in 1999 and 2000.

After a day of deliberations and three days of trial testimony, the jury found the priest, the Rev. Michael Fugee, former assistant pastor of St. Elizabeth Church in Wyckoff, guilty of a charge that he brushed his hand over the youth's crotch during four brief wrestling sessions in the boy's home during the two-year span. The charge, aggravated criminal sexual contact, carries a possible prison sentence of three to five years, but it does not require a jail sentence for those with no prior criminal convictions. In the other part of the verdict, returned about 6 p.m., the jury found Father Fugee not guilty of endangering the welfare of a minor.

Father Fugee, 43, who has been a priest since 1994, seemed composed as the verdict was announced, while several of his supporters in the courtroom gasped and cried quietly while holding hands. After the jury was dismissed, the priest buried his face in his hands as he sat on a bench in a courthouse lobby and seemed to weep.

The priest's lawyer, Brian J. Neary, said his client was extremely worried that the Catholic Church would try to expel him from the priesthood. "He maintains he's innocent,"' Mr. Neary said. "We're extremely disappointed and baffled by the verdict." Mr. Neary said he could not understand how the jury could reach different verdicts on charges based on the same set of facts. He said he expected to appeal the decision.

Demetra Maurice, an assistant Bergen County prosecutor who presented the case, said she was pleased with the jury's decision. Asked to respond to Mr. Neary's argument about a seemingly contradictory verdict, Ms. Maurice said she had no way of knowing the jury's thinking during deliberations and would not try to explain the verdict. But she noted that the two charges legally reflected different intentions on the part of the priest. The sexual contact charge specifies that sexual acts are committed for the sexual arousal or gratification of the person performing them. The endangerment charge specifies that the acts were committed with the intention of debauching a minor's morality.

The boy, who is now 17, testified that Father Fugee's hand "would linger across his crotch" for about 1.5 seconds during the wrestling sessions, which, the youth said, the priest initiated at social gatherings the youth's mother arranged in their home. The youth said he was uncomfortable with the acts but never told his parents or other family members about them. "I didn't want to be the kid who went up against the church," he testified. Eventually, he informed a teenage friend and the owner of a Wyckoff restaurant where he worked as a waiter.

In a statement to detectives in March 2001, Father Fugee at first denied touching the boy and then admitted doing so intentionally. On Tuesday, a county detective, John Haviland, read the statement to the jury. On Thursday, Father Fugee took the stand in his own defense and called the statement a lie, saying he had made the admissions because the police persisted in their questioning and he wanted to go home.

Shortly after his arrest in 2001, he took a voluntary administrative leave from the church and was told by superiors in the Archdiocese of Newark that he could no longer say Mass publicly, wear clerical clothing or perform ministerial duties.

After the verdict tonight, the presiding judge, Charles J. Walsh of New Jersey Superior Court, allowed Father Fugee to remain free on $10,000 bail pending sentencing on June 13.


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