For North Jersey Catholics, latest abuse allegations are a test of faith
By Richard Cowen And Monsy Alvarado
North Jersey Record
September 9, 2018
|Parishioners leave St. Nicholas Church in Passaic after mass on Sunday, September 2, 2018.|
Photo by Amy Newman
|Mary Ann Hilt, a longtime parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Clifton, said she hasn't seen any proof that Pope Francis knew of the sexual allegations against former Newark Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. Catholics, she said, should give him the benefit of the doubt. |
Photo by Amy Newman
|Sacred Heart Church in Clifton. |
Photo by Amy Newman
|St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in Passaic |
Photo by Amy Newman
|A nun leaves Sacred Heart Church in Clifton after the Latin mass on Sept. 2.|
Photo by Amy Newman
|"The church is led by men, but it is also led by the spirit, and the men are men who are not perfect,'' said Maritza Penagos of Garfield, who attends St. Nicholas Church in Passaic. "There is always going to be scandals against the church. I pray for Pope Francis to help him know what to do and what decisions he must make.”|
Photo by Amy Newman
For Catholics, it's the scandal that won't go away.
First, there was the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Newark, after allegations that he sexually abused minors and adult seminarians decades ago. Pope Francis ordered McCarrick to a "life of prayer and penance" while he awaits a canonical trial to examine the allegations.
Then there was the explosive report from a grand jury in Pennsylvania that detailed rampant sexual abuse by 300 priests over decades, with more than 1,000 children as their victims. And, as the grand jury found, there was a rampant cover-up in Pennsylvania, as Catholic bishops frequently shuttled abusive priests from parish to parish, instead of calling the cops.
Adding fuel to the fire, an Italian archbishop, Carlo Maria Viganò, recently accused Pope Francis of knowing about McCarrick's alleged sexual misconduct but doing nothing about it until people came forward with accounts of being abused by McCarrick in interviews with The New York Times.
Last week, the New York State attorney general issued subpoenas to eight dioceses as part of an investigation into whether allegations of sexual abuse of children had been covered up. And New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced on Thursday that his office would begin its own investigation by establishing a toll-free hotline for victims to come forward and having a task force to examine the claims. The number is 855-363-6548.
“The report revealed that sexual assaults on children — and efforts to cover up such assaults — were far more widespread in Pennsylvania than we ever thought possible," Grewal said in a statement. "We owe it to the people of New Jersey to find out whether the same thing happened here."
Also last week, the Diocese of Metuchen suspended the Rev. Alfonso Condorson, the pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Bound Brook, pending a review of allegations that he attempted to seduce a 24-year-old male parishioner while on vacation in Cancun, Mexico, in 1997. Condorson, who previously went by the name Alfonso de Condorpusa, was a priest at Holy Trinity Church in Hackensack at the time. The Newark Archdiocese investigated the allegations then, but no action was taken.
For Catholics, this latest round of sex abuse and cover-up allegations has become a real test of faith. It has done more than just dredge up the dark times of the early 2000s, when The Boston Globe exposed rampant sexual abuse by priests in its Pulitzer Prize-winning "Spotlight" series.
In New Jersey, as has happened elsewhere, the scandal has the potential to go much deeper, rooting out priests who were quietly removed from their parishes but never prosecuted. And it could reach inside the Vatican, where there have been calls for Pope Francis, once seen as a reformer, to resign.
A sampling of North Jersey Catholics as they attended Mass last week suggests that the pope still has their support. But given the seriousness of the crisis, that support is anything but ironclad, and there appears to be mounting pressure for the Vatican to enact real reforms — and quickly.
“I don’t think Pope Francis should resign. He has a right to defend himself,” Susan Cox said as she and her husband, Bill, arrived for the 10 a.m. Mass at St. Philip’s R.C. Church in Clifton last Sunday. “But if it’s proven that he is guilty of a cover-up, then maybe he should.”
"They need better psychological testing for these priests," her husband added. "They need to vet them better."
Asked whether they supported the recent call by state Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, for a grand jury investigation in New Jersey, which has since been set into motion by Grewal, they answered in unison: "Absolutely."
Mary Ann Hilt, a longtime parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Clifton who attends the Latin Mass, said she hasn't seen any proof that the pope knew of the sexual allegations against McCarrick. Catholics, she said, should give him the benefit of the doubt.
"I feel a lot it is hearsay," said Hilt, who called the pope a great leader for his stance on supporting the poor. "I feel more investigations need to be done. It's too soon."
There's been talk of a civil war brewing in the church since Viganò aired his allegations against the pope in a 7,000-page letter last month, with conservatives on one side and more liberal Catholics siding with Pope Francis on the other. Many had high hopes for reform when Francis took over from his conservative predecessor, Benedict XVI. Francis has been moving the church in a more progressive direction, softening its traditional stance against homosexuality while embracing diversity.
“I don’t think there is a war," said Paul DeVita of Clifton. “When Richard Nixon resigned from office, people really gave Gerald Ford a hard time when he pardoned him. What he said was we need to move on; we need to band together and move on. I think if they ended up kicking out Pope Francis, the same result would happen. They would put somebody in office who was part of what is happening now.”
Amid the calls for unity, the latest scandal has revived the debate over whether priests should be allowed to marry. Many see the demand for a celibate life — considered an act of holiness — as asking for the impossible in the modern world.
“I think they might have to have married priests,” Sharon Rubacky said as she left the Church of St. Anne in Fair Lawn. “You’re asking someone who goes into the seminary to be single their whole life. I think that’s asking a lot.”
But Nelida Rivera, another St. Anne parishioner, had a different opinion. "I don't think it's a good idea to let priests marry," she said. "That would take away from their priestly duties. When you're a priest, you're a priest around the clock, seven days a week."
Still, Rivera conceded that, as a mother, she is troubled by the current scandal. "The trust is gone," she said.
Calls for patience, signs of impatience
In 2002, the country's Catholic bishops gathered in Dallas to adopt reforms that were intended to protect children from sexual abuse by priests. Stephen Schneck, a former director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, said the recent sex abuse allegations have shown that those changes weren't enough.
"The laity in general feel betrayed by our church," he said. "I think for those who follow these things, we had hoped the 2002 Dallas reforms would be sufficient to address this issue, and it seems clear that additional measures are needed. I think among those measures needed are greater scrutiny by American law enforcement."
Schneck said Francis has been "more diligent" than his predecessors in addressing the abuse crisis, asking a number of high-ranking prelates to resign over cover-up issues in Australia, Chile, Ireland and other places.
"That said, Pope Francis has only been in office for a few years, and most of these abuse allegations go back decades, so it will take ... years to clear this all up,'' he said. "I think we have to continue to ask Pope Francis to step up his leadership in this regard.
"In so many ways he has been a breath of fresh air for our church in these times, but this abuse crisis needs to be at the very very top of his list of priorities,'' he added.
But Bob Hoatson of West Orange, the founder of a nonprofit organization that works with victims of clergy sex abuse, said the pope has disappointed him.
"When he was elected, Pope Francis said all the right things,'' he said. "And he also established the pontifical commission for the protection of children and youth, and that was a good step. But the only thing we have gotten from Francis since he became the pope is very, very nice words and platitudes; we haven’t gotten any action steps from him."
Hoatson said he is inclined to believe the letter by an archbishop published last month that claimed Francis, along with other church leaders, had been aware of the sexual misconduct allegations against McCarrick. If that is proved, he said, the pope should resign.
“End the cover-up of sexual abuse that has gone on for decades and centuries,’’ Hoatson said, describing what he thinks the pope should do to address the issue. “Then I may have second thoughts, but right now my suspicion is that Pope Francis is hiding something, and it doesn’t look good for his future at all.”
Of the 300 priests accused of sexual crimes by the Pennsylvania grand jury, four had ties to New Jersey. One of them, the Rev. Augustine Giella, served in a number of parishes in Bergen County before moving to Pennsylvania, including Holy Trinity in Hackensack, St. Catherine's in Glen Rock and the Church of the Epiphany in Cliffside Park. (He also served at Our Lady of Sorrows in Jersey City.) He died in 1992 while awaiting trial on charges of possessing child pornography.
The others named in the Pennsylvania grand jury report with New Jersey ties are the Rev. James Hopkins, the Rev. John P. Connor and the Rev. A. Gregory Uhrig. Hopkins was sentenced to 10 years in prison for molesting an altar boy in Camden County. Connor, who served in parishes in Vineland, Gloucester, and Haddon Heights, was charged in 1984 with molesting a 14-year-old boy. He avoided prison by accepting a plea deal that allowed him to enter the Pretrial Intervention program for first-time offenders.
Uhrig, now a weekend assistant at Our Lady of Lourdes in Readington, is alleged to have groped a 13-year-old at a church in Easton, Pennsylvania, in the 1970s. He was later found not guilty by a canonical review board, and by the time the charges were reported to law enforcement, the statute of limitations had expired, the report said.
Leaning on faith
For many lay Catholics in North Jersey, their trust in the church has been shaken but their faith remains strong. The Church of St. Anne was packed last Sunday morning for the 11:30 Mass. Father Joe Doyle spoke of forgiveness in his homily, and though he didn't mention the current scandal, one could draw the implication.
"Forgiveness is a first step," he told the parishioners.
Sin and the gift of forgiveness, which leads to redemption, are seen as the pillars of the faith. Rather than judge and condemn, Catholics see themselves as following Jesus when they forgive.
“I don’t know the Pope. I don’t judge him,” Daniel Belonia said as he arrived at St. Philip’s in Clifton with his wife, Charissa. “Corruption is everywhere. I just try and focus on God.”
“We believe in God, not the pope,” Charissa added.
“It’s a belief we have in God, not the man,’’ said a Clifton man who attended Mass at Sacred Heart in Clifton and gave only his first name, Dan. “We understand the priests are ordained and they are the servants of God, and they are just like us and they are fallible.”
Dan described himself as a “traditionalist” and said he has never liked Pope Francis because of what he said are the “radical changes” that the pontiff is implementing. He cited the pope’s suggestion to change some of the words of the Lord's Prayer.
“It's been that way for over 2,000 years. How could you change something like that, and that’s the tipping point?’’ he said. “There are a lot of changes going on in the world, and I don’t agree with it. God created us, how he created us to be, man and woman, and we should follow that, and God doesn’t make mistakes.”
At St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in Passaic, some who attended the afternoon Spanish Mass said priests who are found to have sexually abused minors or others should be punished. But they acknowledged that the passage of time often makes that difficult.
Under current New Jersey law, victims have until they turn 20, or two years from the moment they connect the abuse with the trauma it has caused, to bring a claim in civil court. But priests and other abusers can't be criminally prosecuted for cases that predate 1996, when the state removed the statute of limitations for sex abuse.
"The church is led by men, but it is also led by the spirit, and the men are men who are not perfect,'' said Maritza Penagos of Garfield, answering a question from a reporter in Spanish. "There is always going to be scandals against the church. I pray for Pope Francis to help him know what to do and what decisions he must make.”