Sex-Case Priest Gets Probation
5 Years in Plea Deal; Victim Was 9
By Bob Jordan
Ashbury Park Press
April 29, 2006
FREEHOLD — A Roman Catholic priest accused of molesting a 9-year-old boy who was a parishioner of St. Thomas More Church in Manalapan more than a decade ago has dodged prison but was given a five-year probation term.
Child welfare advocates said Friday's sentencing of the Rev. Joseph McHugh, 60, in Superior Court marks one of the few clergy abuse cases to go through the criminal courts in New Jersey.
"Usually, the statute of limitations is exceeded because attacks happen when the victim is very young, and it can take years to find the courage to come forward," said Mendham resident Ben "Buddy" Cotton, a state director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). Cotton attended the sentencing.
McHugh was accused of a series of abuses from 1994, when the victim was 9, to 1996. The attacks occurred when McHugh would drive the boy to church-affiliated youth basketball games, according to Gregory G. Gianforcaro, attorney for the victim and his family.
The incidents occurred about a year after the Rev. John Bambrick warned the Diocese of Trenton about McHugh's behavior, according to Bambrick.
Bambrick is the current pastor of St. Thomas More Church but was not assigned to the church at the time he complained.
In the sentencing hearing, state Superior Court Judge Bette E. Uhrmacher told McHugh that the diocese "knew of a similar incident but placed you in charge of children." She did not go into detail.
The victim, now 21, was identified in court only as "Andrew." He was accompanied by family and friends, but Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Thomas Fichter told Uhrmacher the victim did not wish to address the court.
A plea agreement reached in October led to the dropping of a sexual assault charge against McHugh. He pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child, and Uhrmacher also assessed fines of $5,000 and other fees and required him to register as a sex offender under the terms of Megan's Law.
As part of the plea agreement, the prosecution recommended no jail time, but the five-year probation term is the maximum that could be assessed.
McHugh had committed "a betrayal of faith toward that child," Fichter said.
Gianforcaro said outside the courtroom that the victim reported the abuse to his parents two years ago.
"He was 19 at the time he confronted his parents about this abuse," Gianforcaro said. "There was a lot of turmoil in his life that the family did not understand. They wanted to understand the root cause of it."
The Diocese of Trenton previously settled a civil lawsuit by paying a sum the victim does not wish to disclose, Gianforcaro and Diocese spokesman Steven Emery said.
"It has taken an enormous amount of courage and integrity for this young man to confront these crimes and seek justice," Gianforcaro said. "The abuse my client has suffered has cost him three years of his childhood and robbed him of his innocence."
"It is very important to realize that my client was not the only victim here," Gianforcaro said. "His abuse has impacted his entire family as well."
Bambrick said he arrived at St. Thomas More Church in 1996 — becoming pastor three years later — and learned parishioners were aware of "unusual aspects of Father McHugh's behavior."
"He had formed a basketball league to attract children, boys in particular," Bambrick said.
But Bambrick said he had previously been aware of "alarming behavior" by McHugh with minors who were congregants of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Maple Shade, Burlington County. He said he was rebuked by McHugh on an occasion when he had advised parents against letting their children go on a trip with McHugh.
He said he warned the parents "when the diocese didn't take action" on his concerns.
"He often took children to malls, arcades as part of the grooming process to be alone with one," Bambrick said. "I began making complaints about Father McHugh in the early 1990s when he would pull up his car in Maple Shade to pick up kids after school at 3 p.m. to take them to the mall."
Emery confirmed the diocese received a letter from Bambrick complaining about McHugh in 1993.
"I would have to characterize Father Bambrick's account of the diocese reaction as partially inaccurate. The letter contained no specific allegations and no alleged victim was identified or came forward," said Emery, who added the diocese bishop at the time met with McHugh to discuss the allegations.
McHugh is no longer an active minister but technically remains an employee of the Diocese of Trenton, Emery said.
"He has been on administrative leave since 1996. He cannot present himself as a priest," Emery said.
Emery said McHugh was treated at the St. John Vianney Center, Downingtown, Pa., for about six months, and was discharged April 1, 1996. The center is a treatment and education center for clergy.
McHugh told Uhrmacher he lives in Bayonne. Asked by the judge if he wished to make any other statements, he said no.
Uhrmacher ordered that McHugh could have no unsupervised contact with children for the rest of his life.
A 2004 survey by the Diocese of Trenton found that there had been 43 substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors committed by a total of 25 diocese priests. The study covered the period 1950 through June 2002.
Bob Jordan (732) 308-7751, firstname.lastname@example.org
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