Pedophile Priest Gets Probation in Abuse Case

NBC 10 [Freehold NJ]
April 28, 2006

FREEHOLD, N.J. -- A Catholic priest accused of molesting a 9-year-old boy a decade ago after taking him to basketball games was sentenced to five years of probation Friday in a deal that dropped a sexual assault charge to spare the victim from having to testify.

The Rev. Joseph McHugh, who was removed from active ministry about 10 years ago, had pleaded guilty in October to a single count of endangering the welfare of a child.

The victim, who is now 21, declined to speak in court, but said through his lawyer he is glad McHugh had to face justice. However, other victims of clergy sexual abuse, including the priest who replaced McHugh at St. Thomas More parish in Manalapan, blasted the deal.

"Joseph McHugh, though he made many good choices in his life, chose the worst kind of evil," said the Rev. John Bambrick, who said he was molested by priests while studying to become one.

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State Superior Court Judge Bette Uhrmacher sentenced McHugh to probation, fined him $1,000 and required he register with the state as a sex offender. For a person with no prior criminal record, like McHugh, the charge does not carry a presumption of jail time.

Gregory Gianforcaro, the lawyer for the family of the victim, said none of them wanted to put him through the trauma of a trial, and agreed to let the priest plead guilty to the endangerment charge, knowing there was a good chance he would escape any jail time.

McHugh, who has suffered two heart attacks in recent months, has indicated he plans to live with a relative in Bayonne. He declined to speak in court and did not answer questions outside the courtroom after the sentencing. His attorney did not speak about details of the case in court and also declined comment after the hearing.

Gianforcaro said the abuse occurred between 1994 and 1996 when McHugh was a priest at St. Thomas More. The boy was 9 when the abuse began.

"Many years ago, this family trusted not only this priest, but the moral authority of the institution which he represented," Gianforcaro said Friday. "Tragically, their faith and trust have been betrayed. So few victims of clergy abuse ever get to see their abuser held accountable in our legal system. Fortunately, my client will have the rare opportunity of seeing his abuser brought to justice."

Most of the abuse occurred in McHugh's car as he drove the boy back and forth to basketball games, Gianforcaro said.

The victim sued McHugh and the Diocese of Trenton, and received an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed amount, Gianforcaro said.

Steven Emery, a spokesman for the Diocese of Trenton, said McHugh has been on leave since 1996, and has been removed from active ministry, although he technically remains an employee of the diocese.

"He cannot publicly present himself as a priest, wear his collar in public or say Mass," Emery said.

But McHugh has not undergone the process of laicization, in which he is formally removed from the priesthood.

After the court hearing, Bambrick said he had complained to church officials years before McHugh came to St. Thomas More. While Bambrick was assigned to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Maple Shade in Burlington County in the early 1990s, McHugh would stop by after school and pick up carloads of boys to take them to shopping malls or arcades.

He later went on vacations with several of the boys, leading Bambrick to call their families and warn them he felt something was not right with McHugh. Bambrick said he notified church officials about his suspicions.

Emery said Bambrick's letter to church officials did not mention any specific instance of misconduct, and said no potential victim had come forward or been identified at the time. The church sent McHugh to counseling based on Bambrick's letter, Emery said.


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