Church Officials Wash Their Hands of Ex-Priest Hanley

Daily Record [New Jersey]
February 4, 2006

The former priest never was charged with a crime, never went to prison. But he admits to sexually abusing children. He made that admission again this past week, this time in front of television cameras. He faced some of his victims and apologized. He faced other victims and lashed out in anger.

James Hanley, a former Mendham pastor, is not subject to Megan's Law. He is not subject to the orders of any bishop. He agreed to be removed from the priesthood three years ago, so he is on his own. That is what some church officials said would happen in 2002, when victims'advocates called for molesters to be completely removed from the priesthood, a process called laicization. They were saying it again this past week.

"They wanted him defrocked; he's defrocked,"said Marianna Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Paterson Roman Catholic Diocese.

Hanley was back in the news this past week when some of his victims went to the Paterson neighborhood where he recently moved and distributed sex offender alert fliers. Hanley walked up to them and got into a shouting match with some, offering apologies to others. He talked about his bipolar disorder, saying that he'd had seven nervous breakdowns, and that he recently changed medications and was coming out of a haze. He seemed to be coming out of it angry.

Diocese officials said there isn't much they could do about Hanley. They said they aren't in the business of watching over private citizens. They said they aren't going to make public notifications to Hanley's neighbors. They said that's the state's job -- but not in Hanley's case because the statute of limitations expired by the time his crimes became public.

They were saying Hanley is not their problem, even though he receives a $2,100 monthly stipend from the diocese.

Monsignor James Mahoney, vicar general of the Paterson Diocese, was quoted in a published report this past week as saying the church does have some responsibility. He said something about a moral obligation and added that he'd look into it. Then a couple of days passed and Mahoney asked Thompson to respond to a media inquiry. Thompson called Mahoney's initial response a "good-faith effort" and said he had looked into the matter.

There was no more talk of moral obligations.

"We obviously are looking for the best way to approach things," Thompson said. "However, a laicized priest is completely severed from the diocese. There is no longer a legal obligation or an alternative path that the diocese could use to monitor him."

The diocese has reason to be cautious. There might be some legal hazards associated with making community notifications. But it's not necessary for the diocese to go door to door, as victims' advocates did on Sunday. It's probably not a good idea to drive Hanley from one neighborhood to another, to drive him into isolation. But why can't church officials reach out to Hanley to make sure he's still getting some sort of treatment, to let law enforcement authorities know where he's living? They could do something.

"We're not Johnson & Johnson; we're not Enron," said Monsignor Kenneth Lasch, a victims' advocate and former pastor of St. Joseph's parish in Mendham, Hanley's old church. "We should see what we can do to stabilize his life. This is what moral people do."

Ray Skettini of Vernon said that at first he wasn't sure whether it was a good idea to hand out leaflets in Hanley's neighborhood last Sunday. He said he changed his mind after Hanley angrily confronted his victims. He said he now believes that Hanley's neighbors will be safer knowing about his past. Hanley said publicly on Sunday that Skettini was his first victim more than 35 years ago.

"I hope you forgive me, babe," Hanley said.

Hanley had just gone nose to nose with Lou Serrano, the father of one of his victims, calling him a liar. Hanley wasn't saying he did not abuse Mark Serrano, Lou's son. The former priest admitted the abuse. But when Mark Serrano said he'd been abused hundreds of times, this was Hanley's response: "Hundreds, Mark?"

Hanley said he abused a dozen children, ending in 1981, but not as many as has been claimed. His anger came and went. He asked Skettini to forgive him. He yelled at the Serranos.

"He's still a danger," Skettini said. "It took 10 seconds to realize that this (community notification) had to be done."

Hanley had written a letter to Lasch in December that began with a memory of being together at a wedding. He moved on to blame Lasch for pictures posted on a victims' advocacy Web site supposedly showing him entering a church school. He said he was going into the church, not the school.

"Did you authorize this, Ken?" Hanley wrote. "I hardly think so, that a fellow priest would treat his classmate and former friend with lies such as these. ... It is criminal libel."

He went on to say he had contacted an attorney. He ended on a less threatening note: "Wishing you all the best for a merry Christmas." His letter was a little like his public appearance last week, an attempt to reach out followed by anger, anger followed by pleasantries, but no contrition.

Thompson said the diocese doesn't have leverage with Hanley, because his stipend is mandated by canon law. She said Hanley is not subject to orders from Bishop Arthur Serratelli. That doesn't mean that there is nothing to be done.

"These situations are obviously new for any diocese,"said Andy Walton, a spokesman for the Camden Diocese. "There was a notion that it was either/or -- suspend priests without faculties (and have control over them) or laicize them and cut them off. It's not either/or."

He said the Camden Diocese continues to reach out to laicized priests, offering spiritual assistance and psychological counseling. Diocese officials don't make community notifications, he said, but notified law enforcement when a suspended priest had minors in his home. He said the diocese has "ways" of encouraging laicized priests to cooperate. He did not say what that means, exactly, or whether any part of a priest's stipend might be withheld.

Thompson said the Paterson diocese does not have a similar program. Local church officials were saying Hanley is not their problem. The diocese helped him get counseling in the past. Then Hanley was removed from the priesthood in 2003 and the diocese apparently stopped doing anything more than giving him money, meeting the church's legal requirements.

Some victims said this past week that they were hoping to hear some acknowledgement of responsibility from church leaders. Serratelli issued a statement saying Hanley was the state's responsibility. Mahoney's initial good instincts seemed to hit a dead end. By the end of the week, diocese statements all read like they had been written by lawyers.


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