Diocese to Scrutinze Transferred Clergy
Wisconsin Sex Scandal Prompts Metuchen to Toughen Background Checks for Priests

By Jeff Diamant
Star-Ledger [Metuchen NJ]
August 11, 2004

The Roman Catholic diocese of Metuchen says it plans to subject transferred priests to one of the most vigorous background checks in the country, following a scandal involving a priest recently charged with molesting a boy 14 years ago in Wisconsin.

The Rev. Simon Palathingal was charged June 3 with abusing a 9-year-old boy while living at a home for elderly priests in Milwaukee during the early 1990s. He had worked in the Metuchen Diocese since December 2001 but had his ministerial privileges revoked after the arrest.

Palathingal, 62, born in India, is a member of the religious order of the Salesians of Don Bosco -- one of the largest Catholic orders in the world -- and was studying at Marquette University, a Jesuit institution in Milwaukee, at the time of the alleged incident.

He arrived in Metuchen 2 1/2 years ago after working with the Salesians in Lake Charles, La., when a priest he knew in the diocese suggested he come help during the Christmas season. Two months later he asked to become permanent, starting a process of diocese background checks. While waiting for approval, he assisted in the day-to-day operations at St. Mary's in South Amboy and St. Bernadette in Parlin.

Metuchen officials say that while reviewing Palathingal's application, they relied in part on a letter from the Salesians in Louisiana that said he was in good standing with the order.

Diocese officials said the Salesians never informed them he had studied in Milwaukee, so they could not investigate his past there.

The new Metuchen policy will require a full review of personnel files for all priests transferring from other dioceses or orders, rather than on summary letters saying an applicant is in good standing, said Ron Rak, the diocese's general secretary.

"Is it going to be more cumbersome? Yes. It is going to require more individual analysis of an individual's record? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely," Rak said.

The procedure applies to "extern priests," who, like Palathingal, work outside their religious order or home diocese. Metuchen has 32 extern priests.

It was unclear yesterday when the allegation against Palathingal first surfaced, but Bootkoski said in a recent letter to St. Mary's parishioners that the priest "apparently knew" about it a decade ago.

The accuser renewed his allegation this year in an interview with Milwaukee detectives. Palathingal was arrested June 3 in New Jersey at St. Mary's rectory by South Amboy and Milwaukee police, on a criminal complaint charging him with the sexual assaults.

Palathingal and prosecutors have reached an agreement on charges that will allow him to avoid a trial, said Gale Shelton, the Milwaukee assistant district attorney prosecuting the case.

Bootkoski, in his letter, said the case illustrates the need for a nationwide clergy database to track clergy assignments.

"If such a database were in existence, we likely would have known that Father Palathingal had ministered in Milwaukee and we could have inquired about his conduct there," he wrote.

The new guidelines come as a committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is considering ways to beef up national standards for background checks. Many of those standards were implemented two years ago after the clergy sex abuse scandal gained nationwide attention.

Jeff Diamant covers religion. He can be reached at (973) 392-1547