Accused Priest Deserves His Day in Court

Home News Tribune [New Jersey]
July 8, 2007

From the instant any citizen is charged with a crime, civil law guarantees that defendant the right to a speedy trial, the presence of defense counsel, and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The canons of the Roman Catholic Church grant no such protections for the clergy under its jurisdiction. Thus, someone like Monsignor Michael Cashman, a former pastor at St. James Church in Woodbridge, can be deprived of his robes and his parish indefinitely until church officials dispose of an accusation that he sexually abused two children who were members of his congregation almost three decades ago.

Cashman has long denied the accusations and he has never been charged in any court — or even accused in a police report — but he seems to be held guilty of the crime until proved innocent, at least in the eyes of the church.

This is justice?

No one should minimize the heinous nature of sexual abuse, especially of a child. The crime inflicts a life-altering and lifelong scar on its victims. Still, guilty or not, Cashman is owed a final word from church leaders on what his future might hold. Parishioners at St. James deserve an answer, too.

It is, one might say, the Christian thing to do.

Cashman's accusers, a brother and sister who were 14 and 10 years old in 1978, the year the alleged abuses took place, came forward with their stories 24 years later. At the time of the alleged incident, the family attended St. Ambrose Parish in Old Bridge, where Cashman was stationed. In an effort to end the case — or what some might call an effort to make it go away — the Diocese of Metuchen settled with the family for a payment of roughly $140,000. Cashman signed off on the agreement but acknowledged no guilt. Now the 57-year-old, who has not been allowed to function as a priest while he waits to either be removed or exonerated, remains in limbo.

That review is supposed to take place in the ecclesiastical court in Philadelphia, but progress was slowed when one canonical judge on the three-member panel withdrew from the case and had to be replaced. About all diocesan officials will say has come through brief written statements short on information — such as "the revised court has been meeting about the case" — but little else.

Those sorts of driblets can hardly inspire confidence that the process is moving forward "in as timely a manner as possible," as Vicar General William Benwell, of the Diocese of Metuchen, wrote last year in a letter to St. James parish. As a result, former parishioners — those who support Cashman, and they are many — are steeped in frustration.

"I think his civil rights have been violated — I mean the delay there," said Bill Conway, a congregant at Sacred Heart in New Brunswick, where Cashman served for 12 years. "They should have charged him. They should give him a verdict. His name comes up often . . . I hope they give him some sort of a reprieve."

Right now a simple day in court would do.

Fairness demands no less.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.