Abusive Priest's Past Still Poses Big Problems for Courts, Victims

By Jeff Diamant
Star-Ledger [New Jersey]
April 21, 2007

A low point of James Hanley's six months in the Hudson County jail came last winter when a judge considered making it easier for the notorious and transient former priest to leave confinement before trial, as long as somebody — anybody — would agree to receive Hanley's court notices at home in the mail.

Calls went out fast. A nephew refused outright. So did the head of the Garfield rooming house where Hanley, 71, had recently lived. The judge kept Hanley in jail.

He has remained there since, awaiting trial for a 2006 assault charge that is unrelated to his admitted abuse of children decades ago as a Catholic priest.

"He had nobody," recalled Patricia Serrano, who watched the court hearing and whose son was among the dozen boys Hanley has admitted abusing. "But I can't feel for him. There are too many people suffering for what he did to them. And their lives have been destroyed. And he was manipulative."

The scene that unfolded in the courtroom that day highlighted the ongoing difficulties for the courts, his victims, and his former employer, the Paterson diocese, in handling the case of a man who sexually abused boys but has no criminal record to show for it.

Yesterday, Hanley was marched up from jail for another pretrial hearing on the assault charge, which involved a confrontation at a Secaucus hotel involving a male clerk. His attorney was appealing a decision to bar Hanley from a pretrial intervention program meant for first-time offenders.

That Hanley can even apply for a first-time offender program after admitting — as he did in a sworn statement in 2003 — that while a priest he engaged in oral sex with boys, masturbated and showered with them, is largely due to expired statutes of limitations for those sex crimes.

Hanley claimed that in 1984 he admitted to his bishop, Frank Rodimer, that he had molested a dozen boys. The since-retired Rodimer, who has said he underestimated the seriousness of abuse when he first heard allegations against Hanley in the 1980s, did not alert law enforcement at the time.

In 2004, the Paterson diocese agreed to a settle what is New Jersey's worst known case of clergy sex abuse, paying nearly $5 million to 21 men who say Hanley abused them as boys. Most of the alleged abuse was said to have occurred from 1968 to 1982 at St. Joseph's in Mendham and Our Lady of Good Counsel in Pompton Plains.

But given the lack of criminal charges, the question is: How should that past be handled now?

That exact question arose in court yesterday. Assistant prosecutor Howard Bell, arguing Hanley should not be in a program for first-time offenders, proposed showing the judge a newscast taped 15 months ago. In the tape, Hanley told an angry crowd gathered near his home that he was psychotic, manic-depressive, and had abused fewer people than accused of.

Hanley's public defender, James Convery, exploded in court:

"This (assault) case has nothing to do with ... the things he (Bell) just said! He (Hanley) has no prior conviction. They keep treating it like there is. There is none! He's presumed innocent!"

The hearing's conclusion was delayed until next month because of courtroom time restraints.

Of course, for Hanley's victims and their relatives, the issue transcends the current criminal charge against him, for which maximum imprisonment is five years. Those who attend his court hearings relish seeing him in a prisoner's uniform but worry what will happen when he is ultimately freed from custody, whenever that may be.

"If I had a magic wand like I've always wanted," Patricia Serrano said, "he'd live in a religious institution under 24-hour control, away from children, away from the temptations."

Hanley had lived nearly a decade in a senior housing complex in Paterson until late 2005, when he moved to another Paterson neighborhood. His victims, who track him, used leaflets to alert his new neighbors about his presence, learning in the process that Hanley had already befriended children in the area.

Around that time, Hanley described his mental disorders on a Web site for people with bipolar disorder. He wrote of therapy, past suicide attempts, depression, and of entering a psychiatric ward for a few days and having his medication successfully adjusted.

Hanley soon moved again, spending time in the Garfield rooming house. Then, seven months after the March 2006 assault charge, he was sent to jail for missing a court date.

"To a certain extent, Hanley is a victim of the system," said the Rev. Robert Hoatson, a priest in the Newark archdiocese who works with sex abuse victims and watches Hanley's court hearings. "'I don't mean to heap sympathy on him. But this was a man who exhibited very sick signs early in his priestly ministry. ... This was a man with an alcohol problem and was molesting children."

Monsignor Kenneth Lasch, a retired pastor and victims' advocate who worked at the Mendham church where Hanley abused most of his victims, supports alerting neighbors of Hanley's background but worries that if done clumsily, it will lead the former priest to keep moving to new neighborhoods.

"He needs long-term care," Lasch said. "'We have to work on a new protocol to take care of offenders. ... People don't want him on the street, but vindictiveness and vengeance, punishing him for the rest of his life, isn't going to work."

Hanley was formally removed from the priesthood in 2003. But Lasch, like Serrano and Hoatson, said he believes the diocese should foot the bill for his care, given decisions to not alert law enforcement, made decades ago when Hanley could have been prosecuted for sex crimes.

Hanley receives a monthly stipend of about $2,000 from the diocese, but the diocese disavows any greater accountability.

"James Hanley is no longer a priest of the Paterson diocese, so I would refer you for all comment to the public defender who represents his interests," said Marianna Thompson, a diocese spokeswoman.

Convery, Hanley's public defender, said he thinks reports of Hanley's mental illness are exaggerated.

"I don't know that he's mentally troubled," he said. "'I don't think he's a danger to anybody."

Jeff Diamant may be reached at


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