State Senator Calls for Newark Archbishop to Step Aside, Calls Handling of Priest "Sickening"
By Mark Mueller
April 30, 2013
|Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, seen here in a file photo, has faced increasing scrutiny over his handling of the Rev. Michael Fugee.
Declaring “enough is enough,” a state senator this afternoon called on Newark Archbishop John J. Myers to step down, at least temporarily, while authorities investigate his supervision of a priest who has worked with children despite a binding agreement barring such interaction.
Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) said Myers’ handling of the Rev. Michael Fugee displays “arrogance” and defies common sense as the Roman Catholic church tries to regain the trust of parishioners in the wake of the clergy sex abuse crisis.
“Based on everything that’s happened, not just in New Jersey but around the country and the world, you have to follow the spirit of the law, and they have not done that in this case,” said Vitale, who has pushed for laws that aid victims of sexual abuse.
“Zero tolerance is zero tolerance,” Vitale added. “It’s not subject to someone’s interpretation or whim. There’s a potential for this person to reoffend, and if there’s any potential for that to happen, they just can’t be there. Being around children at all is just patently unacceptable.”
Fugee, the former assistant pastor of the Church of St. Elizabeth in Wyckoff, was charged in 2001 with criminal sexual contact after confessing to police that he fondled the genitals of a teenage boy on two occasions. A jury convicted him in 2003.
|The Rev. Michael Fugee participates in a prayer circle with teens and adults during a pilgrimage to Canada in 2010.
An appellate panel ordered a new trial in 2006, ruling the judge gave improper instruction to jurors. Rather than retry the priest, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office allowed him to enter a rehabilitation program for first-time offenders on the condition he undergo counseling for sex offenders and agree to the terms of a memorandum of understanding.
The binding agreement explicitly states Fugee may have no unsupervised contact with children, minister to children or work in any position in which children are involved.
But the Sunday Star-Ledger found that Fugee has attended youth retreats in Marlboro and at Lake Hopatcong through St. Mary Parish in Colts Neck, where is longtime friends with the church’s youth ministers, Michael and Amy Lenehan.
Fugee also has traveled with members of the youth group to Canada. The trips took place in 2010 and 2012.
Witnesses said he frequently heard confessions from minors behind closed doors on the trips, and Facebook photos show him smiling with teenage boys and girls.
A spokesman for Myers has said the archdiocese interpreted the agreement with the prosecutor’s office to mean Fugee could have contact with children as long as he is under supervision.
Vitale was critical of that stance, stating Myers is parsing words and ignoring both the letter and spirit of the agreement.
|The Rev. Michael Fugee poses with Michael and Amy Lenehan, longtime friends and the youth ministers at St. Mary parish in Colts Neck. This photo was taken during an annual pilgrimage to Canada.
“In my view and the view of many others, the agreement has been violated,” he said, calling Fugee’s presence among children and the archdiocese’s stance “sickening.”
Myers’ spokesman, Jim Goodness, declined comment this afternoon.
The prosecutor’s office, meanwhile, continues to investigate the apparent violation. The agency immediately launched a probe when The Star-Ledger made inquiries late last week.
Vitale joins a growing number of people critical of the archbishop, who answers only to the Vatican in Rome.
On Monday, the New Jersey director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a national advocacy group, called for Myers’ resignation. Rank-and-file Catholics from across the archdiocese have requested the same in interviews and letters.