Furor Grows over Newark Archbishop's Stance on Priest Banned from Ministry with Children

By Mark Mueller
The Star-Ledger
April 30, 2013

The Rev. Michael Fugee poses with two boys during a pilgrimage to Canada in 2010. The Star-Ledger has obscured their faces to protect their identities.

Amid calls for a Vatican investigation, Newark Archbishop John J. Myers came under fierce criticism Monday for his handling of a priest who attended youth retreats and heard confessions from minors in defiance of a lifetime ban on ministry to children.

At the Monmouth County church where the Rev. Michael Fugee had been spending time with a youth group, angry parishioners said they were never told about Fugee’s background and they questioned Myers’ defense of the priest, the subject of a lengthy story in the Sunday Star-Ledger.

"It’s complete craziness that the church can let this happen," said John Santulli, 38, a father of two at St. Mary Parish in Colts Neck. "I’m a softball coach, and I need a background check just to get on the field. Every single person I spoke to today said, ‘Oh my God. I didn’t know about this.’ It’s incomprehensible."

Trenton Bishop David M. O’Connell, who previously said Fugee was operating in the diocese without his knowledge or permission, has ordered the pastor of St. Mary to bar the priest from any church activities, a spokeswoman said in a statement Monday.

The bishop of Paterson, Arthur Serratelli, has likewise said Fugee was on a retreat at Lake Hopatcong without permission.

For the first time in his many years as an advocate for victims of clergy sex abuse, Mark Crawford, New Jersey director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called on the archbishop to resign, characterizing Fugee as the latest in a string of problem priests shielded by Myers.

"The archbishop continues to insist it’s fine for Fugee to work with children. It’s a very dangerous message," Crawford said. "When will it be enough? When someone gets hurt? What does it take when you have a man who has admitted groping a child on more than one occasion?"

Fugee, 52, was convicted in 2003 of criminal sexual contact for allegedly fondling a 14-year-old boy’s genitals on two occasions. Three years later, an appellate court vacated the verdict, ruling the trial judge should not have allowed jurors to hear the part of Fugee’s confession in which he described himself as homosexual or bisexual.

The rest of the confession was not called into question.

Rather than retry Fugee, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office allowed him to enter pre-trial intervention, a rehabilitation program, on the condition that he undergo counseling for sex offenders and sign an agreement barring him from any work in which children are involved. The archdiocese’s vicar general, on behalf of Myers, signed the agreement as well.

Yet The Sunday Star-Ledger found Fugee has apparently violated that pledge with impunity, attending retreats in Marlboro and Lake Hopatcong and traveling with members of the St. Mary youth group to Canada.

Jim Goodness, a spokesman for Myers, denied Fugee had broken the agreement because he was under the supervision of other priests and St. Mary’s two youth ministers, who are longtime friends with the priest.

Monday, Goodness said Myers and Fugee would have no comment.

"Father Fugee remains a priest who is allowed to be in ministry," the spokesman said. "There is no change in his status at this point."

The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into Fugee’s activities after inquiries by The Star-Ledger. That probe remained underway Monday.

Others are calling on the Vatican to launch an investigation of its own.

Newark Archbishop John J. Meyers, seen here in March, has come under criticism for his handling of the Rev. Michael Fugee.

The Rev. James Connell, an influential Wisconsin priest who has pressed the church for greater transparency on issues of sexual abuse, emailed a letter Monday morning to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that has dealt with the abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church.

Connell, a canon lawyer and the former vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, asked for an investigation into whether Myers violated canon law by failing to notify Rome of the abuse allegations against Fugee.

Connell also questioned whether Fugee should have been returned to ministry at all given the priest’s initial confession and then his willingness to enter the rehabilitation program. Connell calls that decision another admission of wrongdoing.

"The truth in this crisis has to come to light or we will never have true justice," Connell said in a telephone interview. "We cannot expect there to be healing for the victims and survivors if we do not have that truth."

Goodness said in response to Connell’s letter that Myers has fully complied with canon law, including notifying the Vatican of Fugee’s past and forwarding to Rome all relevant documents.

The Rev. Michael Fugee poses with a teenage girl on a youth retreat at the Kateri Environmental Center in Marlboro. The Star-Ledger has obscured the girl's face to protect her identity.

Fugee was returned to ministry, Goodness added, only after an archdiocese review board found that no sexual abuse took place. Those findings also were forwarded to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which concurred with the findings, the spokesman said.

The controversy has stirred the ire of rank-and-file Catholics with no connection to Fugee or the Monmouth County parish. Carolann Aschoff, a family attorney from Roseland, fired off her own letter to Pope Francis and started an online petition demanding Fugee’s reassignment and other measures for greater accountability and supervision in the church.

"Ignoring the agreement they made — ignoring common sense, ignoring prudence, ignoring the protection of children — is really beyond belief," Aschoff said. "They’re being reckless, and no one should be reckless with children."








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