Former Newark Priest, Accused of Abuse, Defended by His Bishop in Brazil
By Deena Yellin
North Jersey Record
May 23, 2019
Weeks after NorthJersey.com and The Record detailed the alleged abuse of a former Newark altar boy in 1991 by a visiting priest, a Catholic bishop in Brazil is defending the priest, who is now serving in his diocese, according to a report.
Bishop Edmilson Amador Caetano said the priest, the Rev. Rene Cavalcanti de Lima, is no longer a threat.
"He is a 74-year-old man who is recovering from prostate cancer. What risk can he be for the children of Guarulhos?" Caetano said in a May 1 article in a Brazilian newspaper, Guarulhos HOJE.
He was responding to an April 4 article by NorthJersey.com about Lima's alleged abuse of Newark native Johnrocco Sibilia when Sibilia was an altar boy at the Immaculate Conception Church in Newark in 1991.
|Father Rene Lima is currently serving in Brazil and is a priest of the Diocese of Guarulhos. (Photo: Internet)|
Lima was then a member of a small religious order, the Society of Divine Vocations, also known as the Vocationist Fathers, but was serving in the Archdiocese of Newark. He would sometimes assist at the church that Sibilia's family attended because the pastor was often sick.
Lima is now serving at a church in Brazil, Santo Antonio Vila Augusta, in the Diocese of Guarulhos.
The Guarulhos HOJE report, which focused largely on NorthJersey.com article's about Lima, confirmed that the Guarulhos Diocese was aware of the allegations against Lima, but was allowing him to continue his work with children. A photograph on the website of the church where Lima is serving shows him presiding over a children's Mass as recently as last week. In another photograph, he has his arm around a young boy at a Christmas party.
After the Brazilian report, the Diocese of Guarulhos posted a note on its Facebook page saying it had not been clear about all that occurred in the U.S. and would wait for a decision of American justice. The note did not address Lima's status or whether his access to minors would be curtailed.
On Wednesday, a member of the diocese's communications staff, responding to a message from NorthJersey.com over Facebook, wrote that "Father Lima is still acting as a a priest in our diocese." This person, who would not be identified, wrote that the diocese is awaiting a decision on Lima in the United States.
But it's not clear that any church authority in the U.S. is reviewing Sibilia's allegations against Lima.
Last August, James Goodness, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, wrote in a letter to Sibilia that the Vocationists order "would be responsible for investigating the matter and taking any disciplinary action under church law." But the Rev. Michael Reardon, a Vocationist priest and pastor of St. Michael's Church in Newark, said the order would refer such a matter to the diocese where the alleged abuse occurred.
A more recent allegation
Not only was the Diocese of Guarulhos contacted about Lima by NorthJersey.com in April. According to the Guarulhos HOJE report, the diocese knew about a separate, more recent allegation against Lima in Brazil.
In 2009, the diocese investigated allegations of a supposed relationship between Lima and a young man in the Church of Our Lady of Aparecidea, Cocaia, where Lima was a parish priest at the time, the newspaper reported. "The youth's parents and church officials were heard in the diocese but the case was eventually shelved," said the report.
The Diocese of Guarulhos' communications officer refused to discuss the more recent allegation, asserting that no accusations have been made against Lima in the diocese, "to our knowledge."
Sibilia told NorthJersey.com that his abuse by Lima started three decades ago with long conversations and family dinner visits at Lima's house. He said this led to molestation and oral sex in the church, Lima's bedroom and during a trip to Florida, which Lima paid for.
|Johnrocco Sibilia recently broke his silence about the abuse that he endured when he was 13. (Photo: Deena Yellin)|
Sibilia broke his silence last summer after he read a high-profile Pennsylvania grand jury report about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. He said he realized he needed to address his own demons while making sure that Lima wouldn't be able to do the same thing to other children. Over the years, he had revealed his story to only a few confidants. But now, he went to to the police and the Newark Archdiocese.
But instead of getting sympathy or help from the archdiocese, he said he was shuttled around from office to office, and his claims were pushed aside.
A reporter from NorthJersey.com also had difficulty obtaining information about the case from the archdiocese as media representatives either ignored her inquiries, or delivered a vague or hostile response.
Victims of religious order priests often fall through the cracks, experts say. Those priests report to regional supervisors and major superiors in Rome, not local bishops. Order priests are usually excluded from dioceses' lists of credibly accused priests, and abuse victims of order priests are not generally compensated through diocese funds, experts say.
The Vocationist order has a strong presence in New Jersey, and Lima was closely linked to the Newark Archdiocese. He was sent to New Jersey from his native Brazil at the behest of then-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, according to newspaper reports. And the archdiocese brought him into the church where he allegedly abused Sibilia.
The Newark Archdiocese has sent mixed messages about how it is handling his case. Goodness, in addition to telling Sibilia that the Vocationists would be responsible for investigating the matter, also informed Sibilia that Lima left the Vocationists order over 20 years ago and returned to a Catholic diocese in Brazil. "We are in the process of notifying the bishop of this diocese of the existence of your allegation," Goodness wrote to Sibilia in December 2018.
But when a reporter from NorthJersey.com first contacted the Diocese of Guarulhos in Brazil in early April, a bishop said he was unaware of any allegations against the priest.
Archdiocese mostly mum
In the meantime, Sibilia said the Newark Archdiocese has taken little action to help him. He said he has suffered emotional distress for decades as a result of his abuse and silence.
Spokeswoman Maria Margiotta has declined to answer a reporter's inquiries about the status of the case yet insists that the diocese "takes all allegations seriously..."
Sibilia, who remains a devout Catholic despite all that has happened in his life, said he dutifully answered a series of questions presented to him by the archdiocese, but he has not heard back about any investigation nor has he been offered counseling or compensation. His requests to meet with Cardinal Joseph Tobin were all denied.
Sibilia has hired an attorney, Daniel Levin of Philadephia, to help him fight for his cause. Levin told NorthJersey.com on Wednesday of his client's disappointment in the archdiocese and asserted that they will pursue all legal remedies available. "It appears no one affiliated with the Catholic Church is interested in properly investigating his credible allegations," said Levin.
Sibilia said he was surprised by the reaction to his plight from the diocese in Brazil. "They give the impression that it's not important for them," he said. "As far as the Newark Archdiocese goes, I don't even know what to say."
The Newark Police said that they have turned the case over to the Attorney General's office for investigation, but the Attorney General's office does not comment or confirm cases until investigations are complete.
An Associated Press article from January 2001 quoted Lima saying that he was came to New Jersey from his hometown of Sao Paolo, Brazil, several years earlier at the request of his bishop.
Then Newark Archbishop Theodore McCarrick was on a campaign at the time to reach out to non-English speaking parishioners and traveled to South America to convince bishops to send Portuguese-speaking priests to serve in New Jersey.
According to the article, Lima was sent to St. Benedict's Roman Catholic Church in Newark. He told the reporter that the church was often the first place where new immigrants seek help. "When they come here, they are totally lost," he said. "They need support and guidance and we need to welcome them."