Former Allentown Priest Removed after Sexual Assault Accusation

By Devon Lash
Morning Call
October 13, 2010,0,5125743.story

A Catholic priest with a controversial history in the Lehigh Valley was removed from his New Jersey church last week after allegations that he sexually assaulted a minor some 30 years ago when he was assigned in the Allentown Diocese.

The Rev. Gregory Uhrig, 63, was removed as the pastor of St. Luke Roman Catholic Church in North Plainfield. He has denied the allegations, according to a letter from the Metuchen Diocese.

Uhrig did not return calls for comment.

Uhrig began serving in the Allentown Diocese at St. Anthony of Padua in Easton in 1978 before moving to St. Ursula's in Fountain Hill in 1982. He was reassigned to St. Francis Cathedral in New Jersey for three years before returning to the Lehigh Valley in 1986 for another eight years. His later years in the Valley were marked by tumult, including protests and police officers at Mass, as he implemented controversial changes in his last parish here.

Matt Kerr, spokesman for the Allentown Diocese, said his diocese contacted Metuchen officials and police last spring after learning of the allegations.

Kerr said he does not know where Uhrig was assigned or what year the alleged assault took place.

"Once we reported it, then it became a Metuchen matter," he said.

Although Uhrig denied the allegations against him, he was removed from service as a precautionary measure because the accusations were deemed credible, according to an Oct. 9 letter from Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski to the St. Luke congregation.

A retired investigator from the Sex Crimes Unit in the Middlesex County prosecutor's office and a diocesan review board interviewed the priest and his accuser, and agreed the claim was "not frivolous" and had "a semblance of truth," according to the bishop's letter.

Charges were not pursued in Pennsylvania because the statute of limitations had expired, according to the letter.

Bootkoski wrote the matter will likely be resolved with a canonical trial.

"Uhrig is considered innocent until proven guilty," he wrote, "and will continue to receive financial support from the diocese pending the trial."

Uhrig was the chaplain at Muhlenberg and Cedar Crest colleges from 1986 to 1988.

He then worked as the assistant pastor of St. Thomas More Church, Salisbury, before he was transferred to St. John's in Whitehall, where he met with resistance to changes he implemented, including ending weekly bingo games and disbanding the choir to promote more singing among parishioners.

In July 1991, Uhrig's unorthodox approach led several dozen parishioners to file a 12-page complaint against him with the bishop. One of the criticisms was that he took some parish children out to a field for their first confessions in a Communion class. Another was that the sacramental wine offered at every Communion was more popular with children than with adults.

Two years later, Bishop Thomas Welsh's decision to transfer Uhrig led his supporters to protest outside the bishop's home and run a full-page advertisement in The Morning Call.

Two Whitehall Township police officers attended each of Uhrig's final Masses because of apparent death threats from parishioners against the Catholic priest.

Uhrig began his assignment at St. Luke in North Plainfield in 2007 by replacing another pastor facing similar accusations, according to a story on the Gannett news website

The website reported that Rev. John Giordano told parishioners at the church in May 2007 that he was resigning so that similar charges of sexual misconduct would not be disruptive to the Metuchen Diocese. Giordano also denied the allegations, the story reported.

Before the North Plainfield assignment, Uhrig also served in Metuchen Diocese parishes in Metuchen, Bernardsville, Somerville and Woodbridge Township, the story said.


Timeline of Fr. Uhrig's service

1978-1982: St. Anthony of Padua parish in Easton

1982-1983: St. Ursula's in Fountain Hill

1983-1986: St. Francis Cathedral in Metuchen, N.J.

1986-1988: Chaplain for Muhlenberg and Cedar Crest colleges in Allentown

1988 -1989: St. Thomas More Church in Allentown

1989-1993: St. John's in Whitehall

Source: Morning Call archives

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