Priest's Return to Ministry after Sex-Abuse Confession Draws New Scrutiny, Criticism

By Mark Mueller
The Star-Ledger
May 19, 2013

The Rev. Michael Fugee in 2003 after a jury in Bergen County found him guilty of aggravated criminal sexual contact.

The Rev. Michael Fugee participates in a prayer circle with teens and adults during a pilgrimage to Canada in 2010.

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.

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

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.

A screenshot of the Rev. Michael Fugee's Facebook page

Late in 2007, members of a secretive review board in the Archdiocese of Newark began the task of determining whether the Rev. Michael Fugee had committed sexual abuse by groping the genitals of a 13-year-old boy during two impromptu wrestling matches.

If the allegations were found credible — and if Archbishop John J. Myers concurred — Fugee would be banned from ministry forever in keeping with a landmark zero-tolerance rule adopted by the nation’s bishops in 2002.

The board, composed mainly of lay people appointed by Myers, had at its disposal Fugee’s police confession, documents from his criminal trial and a copy of an agreement he signed with law enforcement pledging he would never again work with children. It also had evidence of Fugee’s entry in a state rehabilitation program, itself an acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

Yet the panel found no sexual abuse occurred, clearing the way for the priest’s eventual return to ministry.

Six years later — in the wake of revelations that Fugee blatantly violated the ban on contact with children, sparking a criminal investigation and demands for Myers’ ouster — the board’s decision has come under intense new scrutiny and criticism.

Advocates for sex-abuse victims call it a whitewash. Fugee’s accuser and his parents said they were unaware the inquiry was even taking place, characterizing the archdiocese’s attempt to notify them as perfunctory and inadequate. And a respected national expert said the ruling defies common sense.

"It is difficult to understand how, after having read Father Fugee’s confession, any review board or any bishop thought this man belonged back in ministry," said Nicholas Cafardi, a former chairman of the National Review Board, the agency that works with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to prevent child sex abuse and to ensure compliance with reforms.

"This appears to be a review board that did not dig very deeply into the facts before it made its recommendation," Cafardi said. "And certainly Archbishop Myers has some questions to answer."

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a former editor of America, a Catholic magazine, and now a research fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C., said the reforms adopted in 2002 should have precluded Fugee’s return to the life of an active priest in good standing.

"My question is: What was he doing in ministry, period?" Reese asked. "Unless you’re going to start playing with language on what constitutes sexual abuse, the norms are clear. Any priest involved in sex abuse can no longer work as a priest."

The renewed focus on the review board’s finding comes after The Star-Ledger disclosed late last month that Fugee had been attending youth retreats and hearing closed-door confessions from minors at St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck, which is part of the Diocese of Trenton.

Fugee also attended youth events at Holy Family Church in Nutley and made annual pilgrimages to a Canadian shrine with teenagers from both churches, the newspaper found.

Myers’ spokesman, Jim Goodness, initially said Fugee’s actions were within the scope of his agreement with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office because he was supervised at all times. Goodness later reversed himself, acknowledging the agreement had been violated but saying Fugee acted alone.

The prosecutor’s office is investigating the breach and has said the priest could face civil penalties, criminal charges or both.

Fugee, 52, has since been granted a leave from ministry, though it remains unclear whether Myers will seek to permanently remove him from the priesthood, a lengthy process known as laicization.

Myers has declined all interview requests. Late last week, he returned from a weeklong trip to Poland, where he celebrated Mass with Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the top Vatican official in charge of policing sex abuse within the church.

It is not known whether the two discussed the Fugee situation.

Review boards like the one that examined Fugee’s case in 2007 are required in every diocese across America under the terms of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, ratified by the bishops in Dallas 11 years ago in response to the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Some boards predated the charter. Newark, for instance, was among the first dioceses to establish such a panel in 1993, Goodness said.

Newark’s Archdiocesan Review Board, as it is officially known, has about 11 members, predominantly lay people with law enforcement, investigative, legal and clinical backgrounds, he said.

The mandate at every review board is similar: Examine allegations of sexual abuse and determine whether the claims are credible. Based on those findings, bishops make the final call on whether to remove a priest from ministry.

But not all review boards operate exactly alike, said Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI agent who served as the first director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection in the national bishops’ conference.

"For years, we tried to get some agreements among the bishops about the way review boards should work — what protocols should be used, when victims should be called in — but because you were dealing with 50 states and extensive litigation everywhere, we couldn’t come to an agreement on what the standards should be," McChesney said. "As a result, everyone has kind of done it on their own."

In about half the dioceses, the names of review board members are made public, McChesney said. In the rest, including Newark, the members’ identities are closely held.

The Star-Ledger identified and reached out to one board member, an attorney in Essex County. She did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

In most cases, the work of such panels remains wrapped in secrecy.

Goodness, the Newark Archdiocese spokesman, declined to say how many claims of sexual abuse have been deemed credible by the board and how many have been found baseless. He also would not say how many priests of the archdiocese have been removed from ministry because of sexual abuse.

Statistical information about the board’s work, he added, is sent every year to the bishops’ conference, which conducts an annual audit to ensure compliance with the charter.

Speaking generally, Goodness said the board’s members treat everyone who comes before them with "compassion and concern."

"The majority of the people who meet with the review board feel it has been a positive experience," he said.

Fugee, the former assistant pastor at the Church of St. Elizabeth in Wyckoff, came before the board late in 2007 after a yearslong odyssey through the courts.

A jury convicted him in 2003 of aggravated criminal sexual contact, but an appellate panel overturned the verdict three years later, ruling the trial judge should not have allowed jurors to hear the part of his confession in which he questioned his own sexual identity.

Rather than retry him, prosecutors allowed him to enter pre-trial intervention, a rehabilitation program, on the condition that he undergo counseling for sex offenders and abide by the terms of the agreement to stay away from children.

Goodness said the review board knew the full history of Fugee’s criminal case and had all relevant paperwork, including his confession, in which he acknowledged a "sudden urge" to grab the 13-year-old boy’s crotch while wrestling with him on two different days. He also told police that he knew it was a "violation" and that the act "excited" him.

The board, Goodness said, also heard from Fugee.

But it never heard from the priest’s accuser, who told The Star-Ledger that he was not contacted by the archdiocese and didn’t know the investigation had taken place. The man’s name is being withheld by the newspaper because he is an alleged victim of sexual abuse.

Now 27, the man said he doesn’t know whether he would have testified before the board at the time, but he said he should have been given the chance.

"My ultimate hope has always been that he not be returned to ministry and that he not be allowed around children," the man said. "That has never changed."

Goodness said the archdiocese’s records indicate the alleged victim declined to testify before the board, a point the accuser and his parents vehemently deny. The spokesman said the archdiocese sent two letters, one by registered mail and one through first-class mail, to the home of the accuser’s mother in Florida in November 2007.

A copy of the registered letter was provided to The Star-Ledger and bears the correct address for the mother.

But the woman, whose name has been withheld to protect her son’s identity, flatly stated she never received either one.

"I have kept everything related to this case, and this is the first I’m hearing of this," she said. "I never heard from anyone at the archdiocese about this."

She added that she would have been eager to speak to the board and would still do so if she had the chance.

Goodness said there was no evidence that either letter was returned to the archdiocese. He declined to say whether a nonresponse would account for the notation indicating the victim declined to appear before the board. He also declined to say whether anyone in the archdiocese followed up with a phone call.

The accuser’s father, who lives in New Jersey, likewise said he never received notification of the review board process. He said he would have welcomed the chance to testify to keep Fugee out of ministry.

"The original reason for going through this was to prevent this from happening again," he said. "It was not for fame. It was not for infamy. It was not for money. The idea was to show what was happening with this priest and to spare other people what my son went through."

That the board did not speak to the accuser makes its finding all the more suspect, said Cafardi, the former chairman of the National Review Board.

"It’s the job of the review board to determine if an accusation is credible," he said. "How do you determine credibility if you don’t speak to the victim, especially when the victim is willing to speak?"

The archdiocese’s entire handling of Fugee, from his return to ministry to his violation of the agreement, has caused harm well beyond Newark, Cafardi said.

"It undercuts the efforts of every other diocese in the country," he said. "Now other Catholics in other parts of the country have reason to question how their review board is working."

The view that the Fugee scandal has damaged the church is shared by Ronald Lowenberg, a former police chief who now serves as chairman of the review board in the Diocese of Orange, Calif.

"We as a church know we probably didn’t do a very good job in the past, but this is a new era," Lowenberg said. "We’ve done some pretty good work over the past years, and to have a case like this, it just sets us all back. It’s decimating to the work that we’ve done to solve the problem our parishioners have, which is, ‘Do I really trust the church to do its job when I have a pedophile priest?’"

Mark Crawford, the New Jersey director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national advocacy and support group, called the Newark review board’s decision on Fugee "inconceivable" and urged members to come forward to explain their reasoning.

"Either they didn’t have all the evidence that was presented in court, or they were woefully biased," Crawford said. "Father Fugee should never have been returned to ministry."


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