In Troubled Newark Archdiocese, Hoping Its New Leader Is a Pastor, Not a Prince

By James Barron
New York Times
November 13, 2016

Archbishop Tobin at the Cathedral Basilica last week. As the archbishop of Indianapolis, he made headlines in 2015 when he said that the archdiocese would continue to welcome Syrian refugees, despite moves against resettlement by Gov. Mike Pence.

Bishop Manuel Cruz after Mass in November at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the seat of the Archdiocese of Newark. The archdiocese is preparing for the arrival of its new leader, Archbishop Joseph Tobin.

A parishioner during Mass at the Cathedral Basilica. The Newark Archdiocese serves four counties in an economically and racially diverse area of New Jersey.

Taking communion at the Cathedral Basilica.

NEWARK — Bishop Manuel A. Cruz opened with a head count. “Four,” he said, looking out at the four parishioners in a small chapel behind the soaring Gothic sanctuary of the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart here. “The perfect number, because it is the number we are here.”

Then Bishop Cruz said the evening Mass — the nightly service in English. Of the four worshipers, one was a lay reader, Edna Tan, who came to the United States from the Philippines 27 years ago. Also at the service was the cathedral’s head sacristan, Sister Ana Julia Frias, a nun from the Dominican Republic. The third worshiper was black, the fourth white.

Ninety minutes later in the same chapel, another Mass began, the weekly evening service in Spanish. The pews were full, about 50 people in all.

The difference in attendance illustrates one of the main challenges facing the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark as it prepares for the arrival of a new leader, Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin, currently the archbishop of Indianapolis. The cathedral is the seat of a troubled archdiocese stretching across four counties in northern New Jersey. It encompasses some of the state’s wealthiest communities, and some of its poorest.

But Archbishop Tobin will face other challenges in Newark, where he will succeed Archbishop John J. Myers, the leader of the archdiocese’s 1.5 million Catholics for the past 15 years.

Archbishop Myers — who in July turned 75, the age at which bishops routinely submit their resignations to the Vatican — has been faulted for the archdiocese’s handling of a case involving a priest convicted of sexual abuse. He has also come under fire for using more than $500,000 of church money to build an addition to his weekend home in Hunterdon County, N.J. — a three-story wing with an exercise pool and an elevator.

“It seems to me it is a place that needs some serious healing,” Christopher M. Bellitto, a professor of history at Kean University in Union, N.J., said of the archdiocese.

Pope Francis, by appointing Archbishop Tobin to his new post and elevating him to cardinal later this week, is not only rejiggering the hierarchy of the church in the United States, but he is also elevating the Newark Archdiocese, Catholic commentators said. It is one of the 10 largest dioceses in the country, but it has never been led by a cardinal, as the Archdiocese of New York is.

Rocco Palmo, who follows the church hierarchy for the Catholic news site Whispers in the Loggia, wrote that Archbishop Tobin and his counterpart in New York, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, are “two garrulous, larger-than-life Irishmen whose shared lack of shyness is punctuated by a more than occasional difference of approach to church life.”

Archbishop Tobin, who is seen as a moderate, made national headlines last year when he announced that his archdiocese would continue to welcome Syrian refugees in Indiana, despite moves against resettlement by Gov. Mike Pence, now the vice president-elect.

Archbishop Myers, who is considered a conservative, barred a priest from the ministry in September over the priest’s support for gay advocacy groups. The priest, the Rev. Warren Hall, a former chaplain at Seton Hall University, said the archbishop had told him he was “confusing the faithful.”

Even before Archbishop Myers reached retirement age, Pope Francis was moving to put his imprint on Newark. In 2013, the pope named a coadjutor archbishop who would have succeeded Archbishop Myers automatically when he turned 75. But in 2014, the pope reassigned the coadjutor archbishop, Bernard A. Hebda, to another trouble spot, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“Hebda and Tobin are Francis bishops, where Myers is more of a prince or prelate,” Professor Bellitto said, noting that Archbishop Tobin has told people never to call him “a prince of the church.” The National Catholic Reporter quoted the archbishop as saying that he and the pope were “fed up to here with princes.”

Professor Bellitto said that “Newark needs a pastor, not a prelate or a prince” and that Archbishop Tobin would fit the bill. Once he arrives in Newark, the professor said, parishioners would “feel as if a bishop is being named to hear them, as opposed to being named to preside over a wealthy place and talk to wealthy people all the time.”

“Fund-raising is part of the job,” Professor Bellitto said. “Balancing the books is part of the job, but you can hire people to do that. You can’t fake authenticity. You can’t fake a sense of real compassion for the people in the pew. After Francis was named pope, a lot of people were saying soup kitchens became the new limousines, and they were saying St. Francis of Assisi was always my favorite. But their closets were still full of French cuffs.”

With parishes that offer Mass in 20 languages, the Newark Archdiocese serves a wide economic range in the counties of Bergen, Essex, Hudson and Union. The township in the archdiocese with the highest median household income, $194,536, is North Caldwell, about 12 miles from Newark. Orange has the lowest, $32,749. Newark itself has the second lowest, $34,012, according to a Queens College analysis of census data.

The four counties are also racially mixed. They are 42.6 percent white, 26.3 percent Hispanic and 18.6 percent black, according to the Census Bureau data.

“It’s very different from when I grew up,” said Peter Ahr, an emeritus professor of religion at Seton Hall, from which he graduated in 1962. “In my youth, it was largely European ethnic — Irish, Italian, German, Polish. There has been an enormous increase in the number of African-American Catholics and Latinos, and I can think of Korean-American Catholic parishes that didn’t exist 50 years ago.”

But the archdiocese, like many across the United States, has closed churches as attendance has fallen or shifted. It now has 214 parishes, down from 238 in 1995. It operated 192 schools in 1995 — 153 elementary schools and 39 high schools. Now it has 96 — 67 elementary schools and 29 high schools. The archdiocese had 806 priests in 1995, compared with 700 today.

The Rev. Thomas Dente, the pastor of Notre Dame Church in North Caldwell, said his big challenge was “to bring people back.”

“I say this to my staff, I say I’d be happy if we get parishioners who are registered to come” to Mass, he said. “It’s not a question of going out and bringing non-Christians and converting, quote unquote. It’s a question of bringing back people who are only slightly connected now.” He estimated that such people made up half the 2,000 families in his parish.

The sexual abuse case that drew national attention involved the Rev. Michael Fugee, who was convicted in 2003 of criminal sexual conduct. He had been accused of groping a boy in 1999 and 2000, when he was an associate pastor at St. Elizabeth Church in Wyckoff, N.J. The conviction was later overturned, but he and prosecutors in Bergen County reached an agreement that called for him to undergo sex-offender treatment.

The agreement also said that he was not to have unsupervised contact with children. And the archdiocese was to see that he was not given responsibilities that put him in a position to do so.

But in 2013, The Star-Ledger reported that he had been working with youth groups at St. Mary’s Church in Colts Neck, part of the Diocese of Trenton. Father Fugee voluntarily left the ministry as Archbishop Myers moved to suspend him. He was expelled from the priesthood in 2014.

James Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said that it had restricted Father Fugee to administrative work — essentially a desk job — after his conviction was overturned. “Michael Fugee did not tell us he was going down to Colts Neck,” Mr. Goodness said. “He went there on his own. He never asked for permission to do any of that. Had he asked, he would have been told no.”

The archdiocese does not make public the number of sexual abuse cases it is dealing with. Mr. Goodness said it has reported allegations to county prosecutors and referred cases that are not prosecuted to a review board within the archdiocese.

Robert M. Hoatson, a former Catholic priest and a founder of Road to Recovery, an organization based in New Jersey for survivors of sexual abuse, said that under Archbishop Myers, the archdiocese had “treated this bureaucratically,” even as it settled cases. The archbishop “doesn’t meet with anyone, doesn’t offer any pastoral outreach,” he said. “In other dioceses, the bishop has met with victims. It’s more pastoral in tone.”

Father Dente said he had heard from parishioners about the archdiocese’s handling of abuse cases and the money spent on Archbishop Myers’s house.

“But I will say, most people in the parish, the ones who are coming, love their church,” he said. “They love the local parish, and their faith is not hindered by events or scandals that upset them. Their faith is deeper.”


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