Vatican Clears Former Pastor of Sex Charges

By John Chadwick
June 12, 2007

The Rev. William J. Dowd, a popular Bergen County priest who was accused in 2002 of sexual misconduct with minors, has been cleared by church officials in Rome.

The decision means the 67-year-old Dowd can wear clerical garb, celebrate Mass and represent himself as a Catholic priest for the first time in more than five years. But he won't be reassigned to St. Luke's in Ho-Ho-Kus, where he had been pastor and where some parishioners had rallied to his defense.

Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Newark Archdiocese, said Dowd may seek an assignment that doesn't involve working in a church, given the "notoriety" of the accusations.

"He and the archbishop agree that some kind of specialized ministry would be best for him," Goodness said Monday. "He hasn't been in parish ministry for a long time, and it would probably be best for him to find a place where he can ease himself in to active ministry."

Goodness said that Dowd "is entitled to the restoration of his reputation and the opportunity to return to ministry."

A panel of three priests found Dowd innocent of the allegations in a 2005 closed-door church trial in Newark. That proceeding then had to be reviewed by the Vatican, Goodness said.

Officials in Rome contacted the archdiocese late last week to say they had affirmed the trial.

Dowd, who could not be reached for comment Monday, has had a long career in the archdiocese, which encompasses 1.3 million Roman Catholics in Bergen, Hudson, Essex and Union counties. He was once director of its youth and young adult programs and served as chaplain of both the New York Giants and the then-Bergen Pines County Hospital.

He has declined to make a public statement since 2002 and has left the North Jersey area. Friends say he has a large extended family and spends time with relatives.

He still has a strong following at St. Luke's, where parishioners once rallied outside the archdiocesan headquarters on his behalf. The archdiocese installed a new pastor there after Dowd was placed on administrative leave.

Some parishioners applauded and wept with joy when news of the decision was read during Masses this weekend.

"The tissues came out and you could see the tears," said Gloria Kane of Waldwick. "We would've stood up and applauded, but that may have seemed disrespectful."

'Very skeptical'

Not everyone cheered the news. A victims' advocacy group criticized the church's use of closed-door proceedings.

"Historically, people have been very skeptical of secret church proceedings when clerics are clearing other clerics of crimes against children," said Mark Crawford, co-director of the New Jersey chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "More and more often, these proceedings are returning the accused predator priest to ministry."

Dowd never faced criminal charges. The allegations were decades old and, as a result, could not be prosecuted under the statute of limitations.

The accusations came to light during a turbulent time for the Catholic Church. The clergy-abuse scandal that first surfaced in Boston in early 2002 was, by the spring of that year, erupting in dioceses nationwide. Accusers stepped forward after years of silence to say they were molested as children by priests.

Church officials have released few details about Dowd's case, saying only that a man from Mississippi initially came forward, followed by a second accuser. Both alleged that Dowd had engaged in sexual misconduct with them while they were minors.

The case was presented initially to an archdiocesan review board a predominantly lay panel appointed by the church which determined the accusations warranted further action.

That led to the closed-door trial in 2005, with three priests from outside the archdiocese acting as judges.

Dowd was represented by an attorney versed in church law and the archdiocese assigned a "promoter of justice" to present the case.

"It went through a period of months, with evidence being gathered and a number of people from both sides presenting testimony," Goodness said. "The decision of the tribunal was that he was not guilty of the allegations."

That decision then was sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, which reviewed the trial and found it was conducted in accordance with church law.

Through it all, a group of parishioners at St. Luke's continued to back Dowd and to express frustration at how long the process was taking.

Parishioners such as Joe Colavita of Waldwick continued to stay in touch with Dowd long after his removal.

"I knew him as a person and as a man, not just as a parish priest," Colavita said. "He became a personal friend, someone who knew my wife and my children.

"Knowing him as well as I did, I just found the accusations hard to believe."


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