Archdiocese Widens Alerts on Accused Priests

By Jeff Diamant
The Star-Ledger [Newark NJ]
March 21, 2006

The Newark Archdiocese has recently implemented a new policy to alert parishioners whenever a priest is permanently barred from the ministry because of a sex abuse allegation, a spokesman said.

The archdiocese was previously the state's only Roman Catholic diocese that did not routinely alert parishioners when their priest, or former priest, was prohibited from wearing a collar because of sex allegations.

Now the archdiocese has begun making it known at every church where those priests served -- generally through church bulletin notes -- that they were removed because of an accusation, said James Goodness, a spokesman for Newark Archbishop John J. Myers.

Goodness would not say exactly when archdiocese officials changed the policy.

However, on Sunday, there was an announcement in church bulletins in five parishes where Monsignor Peter Cheplic worked from 1972 to 2005, saying that because of a recent archdiocesan review board decision to hold a church trial against him over sex-abuse allegations, Cheplic decided to permanently retire and no longer serve as a priest.

Cheplic most recently served at St. Henry's Church in Bayonne.

Since the clergy sex abuse scandal gained national attention in 2002, church critics and victims of abusive priests have demanded that dioceses identify abusive priests. They said it is especially important because in so many cases, statutes of limitations prevented priests from being prosecuted in court.

The Newark archdiocese has come under criticism for alerting parishioners directly only in limited circumstances: only if the accused priest was a pastor, and only in churches he worked at when accused, rather than wherever he had worked before or since. In addition, the archdiocese would tell reporters who asked about a specific priest.

"We've ... adapted as times have adapted," Goodness said yesterday. "We now will be placing them (bulletin notes) in any place where a priest had served, at the conclusion of the (diocese's investigative) process."

One factor in the change, Goodness said, was alarm over the case of the Rev. Gerald Ruane. The archdiocese in 2003 quietly barred Ruane from presenting himself as a priest because of an abuse allegation. Ruane, however, acted as a priest repeatedly, including an appearance last spring, at a shrine in Morris County and on television.

Critics charged that if Ruane's name had been publicized when he was first disciplined, he would not have easily been able to present himself as a priest afterward.

Sunday's announcement about Cheplic ran at St. Aloysius in Jersey City; St. Matthew in Ridgefield; St. Henry's in Bayonne; St. Lawrence in Weehawken, and St. Joseph of the Palisades in West New York. The note will run next week at Holy Spirit/Our Lady Help of Christians in East Orange, another parish where Cheplic had worked.

Last fall, three men accused Cheplic of molesting them decades ago.

Joe Capozzi, 37, one of the men, called the archdiocese's new policy "one step in the right direction" but said church officials should "really rethink the way they handle all of these things."

He said he did not learn about the case being resolved until churchgoers told him about the church bulletins yesterday.

And Capozzi said he was bothered by the announcement's note that Cheplic maintains his innocence and "felt that by removing himself from ministry, he could encourage everyone to begin to heal from this ordeal."

"He talks about wanting the healing to begin, but the healing can't begin until everyone is honest and truthful," Capozzi said yesterday.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, a victims group, said of the new policy, "I suppose at one level it's progress, but only if it is consistently implemented. History tells us that such pledges from church officials usually are not (implemented).

"Is it progress? Sure, if it really happens. Is it dramatic progress? Absolutely not."

He said more people would see the announcements if they were placed in the diocesan newspaper, rather than just in parish bulletins.


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