Church Moves to Laicize Priests

By Phil Garber
Observer-Tribune [New Jersey]
October 23, 2003

The Catholic Church has moved to defrock one monk and has asked the Vatican for permission to try five other priests for having committed sex acts against minors while at area churches.

Kenneth Mullaney, a lawyer for the Paterson Catholic diocese, said a request was submitted to the Vatican for the trials after the diocese found "credible evidence" that sexual abuses had occurred.

Criminal charges were never lodged against any of the clerics because the alleged incidents occurred more than 20 years ago and the statute of limitations has expired.

The diocese has asked the Vatican to laicize or defrock the monk, Robert Flavin, 54, who formerly went by the name of Brother Malachy Flavin. A special review panel determined last year that Flavin sexually abused a former student, Robert L. Sheridan of Morristown, when he attended the Delbarton School in Morris Township in 1981.

The church has moved for laicization against Flavin, who works at AT&T in Morristown, because he has refused to voluntarily leave the religious community. The other priests also have refused to give up the priesthood, said Mullaney.

"They have canon lawyers and are prepared to defend themselves in a canon trial," Mullaney said.

The diocese has asked for permission to hold church trials for Ralph Sodano of Our Lady of the Mountain Church and Allen Stepien of St. Mark's Church Church, priests who were both removed from Washington Township churches last year;

James A. D. Smith, removed last year from St. Therese Parish in Roxbury; Absalom Continuho, who worked at St. Jude's Church in Mount Olive; and William McCarthy, who has retired from St. Rose of Lima Parish in East Hanover church.

1978 Allegations

Sheridan first notified Delbarton in 1978 of the alleged sexual assaults by Flavin. Flavin subsequently voluntarily left the abbey but worked for a decade as a part-time deacon at Resurrection Parish in Randolph Township.

Until a year ago, Delbarton had never notified authorities or moved to defrock Flavin. A review panel at Delbarton was convened as a result of an edict by the U.S. Conference of Bishops meeting in 2002 in Dallas. The conference was called after national attention was drawn to the scandal of priests sexually assaulting young parishioners around the nation.

The decision for laicization comes five months after Delbarton's nine-member review board found Sheridan's accusations credible. The panel was headed by former state . Supreme Court Justice Marie Garibaldi.

Sheridan said Flavin's laicization will help to end a long, painful period in which Sheridan tried to stop Flavin from having any religious standing and from having any connections with young people.

"I shall never forget that the people whom I trusted and admired the most were the very same ones who failed to assist me in my search for truth, healing and justice," Sheridan said in a statement. "I cannot understand why the members of the (Delbarton) Abbey, with their high moral authority, were not the very first ones to report this crime to the civil authorities and to seek initially the laiscization process with my past abuser."

Sheridan said he and his family never gave up "and finally got this pervert defrocked."

"I did the community a distinctive service," Sheridan said. "His corrupt and despicable ministry is now over. He can never identify himself to an adolescent as a religious figure or counselor."

Anthony Cicatiello, a spokesman for Delbarton, said the abbey is "cooperating fully with the diocese."

Cicatiello said Delbarton did not originally notify authorities in 1978 because Sheridan did not want his name divulged. Sheridan said he did ask originally that the abbey not divulge his name but that Delbarton should still have independently moved to remove Flavin.

By the time Sheridan made his accusations, Flavin had already left Delbarton and had resumed working at Resurrection Parish. Cicatiello said the abbey would have acted differently had it known the full extent of Flavin's alleged actions.

Cicatiello also said that under current laws, anyone with knowledge of sexual abuse against minors is required to notify authorities.

Sheridan said he was pleased that the church is finally taking action to insure that Flavin can not be an active cleric. But Sheridan said he remains angry that Delbarton took no action to defrock Flavin when Sheridan told the abbey of his accusations more than 11 yeas ago.

Sheridan was informed of the review panel's findings in May and recently learned of the diocese plans. He faulted the review panel and diocese for not having acted or informed him faster, as the panel finished its investigation in December 2002.

"Letting me hang out for five and one-half months without telling me anything was like having to relive the experience again," Sheridan said.

Flavin's lawyer denied his client committed any improper sexual acts.

"My client won't respond other than to say that this is a non-event and that it never happened," the lawyer, William Ware of Morristown, said last Thursday. "On behalf of Mr. Flavin, we will not dignify the allegations with a response."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.