Priest Receives Probation for Sexual Abuse of Boy

By Maryann Spoto
The Star-Ledger [Freehold NJ]
April 29, 2006

In one of the few cases of its kind to make it to criminal court, a Roman Catholic priest was sen tenced to a probationary term yesterday for sexually abusing one of his parishioners.

Superior Court Judge Bette Uhrmacher in Freehold sentenced the Rev. Joseph McHugh to the maximum five years' probation and ordered that he have no unsuper vised contact with children or adolescents for the rest of his life for a crime she said destroyed the "entire belief system" of the victim and his family.

"Despite your compromised health, I'm still concerned about protecting the public -- in this case, particularly children and adolescents," Uhrmacher told the 60-year-old former pastor of St. Thomas More Church in Manala pan.

She often referred to a letter she received from the victim's mother that she said was "most moving and descriptive of what happens when a child's involved. It never goes away."

McHugh, who has had two heart attacks since January, pleaded guilty Oct. 24 to a third-de gree child endangerment charge, and under a plea deal, the prosecution agreed to recommend no jail time.

Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Thomas Fichter said the case was "doubly tragic" in that it involved "not only an adult who breached the responsibility and trust he had ... but also there was a betrayal here ... a betrayal of faith."

A number of priest sexual abuse survivors and their relatives sur rounded the victim and his family in the courtroom yesterday as a show of support.

Patricia Serrano, whose son Mark Serrano has spoken publicly about his sexual abuse at the hands of defrocked priest James Hanley, said this case is unusual because it's only the third reported criminal prosecution.

"How lucky we are to be at the sentencing of a priest because it doesn't happen often," she said.

Her husband, Louis Serrano, called the sentence "a slap on the wrist. He's a predator, he's out there as a predator."

The victim, now 21, reported the abuse to his parents two years ago, just under the statute of limitations for prosecution. His attorney said he came to know McHugh through a church basketball team McHugh started.

The sexual abuse occurred dur ing a two-year period, beginning when the victim was 9, often in the car while McHugh drove the boy to and from events, said the attorney, Gregory Gianforcaro.

His eyes filled with tears during the sentencing, the victim did not address Uhrmacher, and he and his parents declined comment outside the courtroom.

"It was very important for him that this not be put through behind the scenes because it takes an enormous amount of courage for any victim of childhood sexual abuse to confront his accuser through the justice system, and that's what he did," Gianforcaro said.

McHugh stood stoically as he was sentenced and did not look at his victim. Asked if he had anything to say, he replied, "No, thank you, your honor."

Neither he nor his attorney, Antonio Martinez, would comment after the sentencing.

Uhrmacher ordered that McHugh, who lives in Bayonne, follow the registration and notifica tion requirements of Megan's Law and he will have to undergo mental health counseling.

The Rev. John Bambrick, now pastor at St. Thomas and a sexual abuse survivor of another priest, said after court that McHugh started the team specifically to give him access to boys because the church has no grammar school.

McHugh often took the boys on trips and, at one point, Bambrick warned the boys' parents not to give their consent to the getaways because he had nagging suspicions about McHugh, the pastor said.

"Joe McHugh, though he made a lot of good choices in his life, he took the ultimate evil," Bambrick said outside the courtroom. "He betrayed the trust of a child -- he abused a child."

Bambrick said he would have liked McHugh's punishment to be 10 to 20 years in prison, but is somewhat comforted that this case now gives him a criminal record.

Steve Emery, spokesman for the Diocese of Trenton, said McHugh has been on administrative leave since 1996 after the diocese received a different sexual abuse allegation. That complaint was reported in 2002 as part of a church-wide review of clergy sex abuse allegations and also was turned over to the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office, Emery said.

"The diocese reported this inci dent to the prosecutor's office and cooperated with the prosecution," Emery said of yesterday's case. "Hopefully there is some closure to the victim and his family in an unfortunate situation."

He confirmed that the diocese reached a monetary settlement with the victim, but said the terms of the settlement are confidential.


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