When a Priest Is Accused of Assault, You Need to Tell Us, Longtime Catholic Says
By Bill Murphy
December 11, 2019
|Bishop O’Connell mishandled the situation with Father Riedlinger seven years ago and he has mishandled the situation with Fr. Williams now, Bill Murphy says. Above, Matthews (left) and Riedlinger.|
When the five Catholic dioceses of NJ released the names of priests with credible accusations of sexual abuse, I, like many Catholics, went to review the lists with a feeling of apprehension, hoping that I did not recognize any of the names.
I was devastated to see the name of Father Brendan Williams, a priest I had known and thought the world of since I was a teenager. Next to his name were the words “removed from ministry.” When was he removed from ministry? I wondered. I remembered seeing announcements in the diocesan newspaper announcing his retirement in 2012. Since then, Fr. Williams’ former parish advertised a party in honor of the 50th of his ordination on June 7, 2015 and the parish bulletin also advertised a pilgrimage he was leading in September 2015.
I contacted the Diocese of Trenton multiple times to express my concerns. When exactly was Fr. Williams “removed from ministry," as they claimed he had been? Was his “retirement” a pretense? If not, when specifically was he removed from ministry and why was no announcement made? What did the diocese know and when did they know it?
I emailed the executive director of communications and media and the director of youth and child protection. I raised these concerns and, in doing so, enclosed a link to an article from the diocesan newspaper showing a retired Fr. Williams returning to his parish for an anniversary Mass in 2012. I was told that the diocese had released all the information that it was going to release and there was nothing more to say. Interestingly enough, the article that I referenced in my e-mail was taken off the diocesan website almost immediately.
Now that Fr. Williams has been arrested on the charge of sexually assaulting a minor, the Diocese has issued a statement regarding him. According to the Diocese, they learned of accusations against Fr. Williams in November 2018 and reported this to the local authorities. The diocese then included Fr. Williams’ name on a list of those credibly accused with sexual abuse in February 2019 three months later.
So, for three months, one of his old parishioners could have visited Fr. Williams in his retirement home completely unaware that they were in the presence of an accused sex offender. This is unacceptable. And, regarding Fr. William’s “removal” from active ministry, the diocesan statement confirms that no such removal ever took place: “Father Williams is the former pastor of St. Veronica Parish, Howell, and has been out of active ministry since 2012.” Even this statement is deceptive, since a priest can be technically out of active ministry but still have regular contact with the public by attending church functions and leading pilgrimages, as Fr. Williams did.
There is much talk about the bishop of a diocese being a shepherd. A shepherd needs to protect his sheep. Bishop O’Connell has proven himself untrustworthy in that regard. In 2012, he removed Fr. Matthew Riedlinger from his parish after being forwarded text messages between Fr. Riedlinger and someone posing as underage boy. The bishop waited over a year to tell the parishioners why Fr. Riedlinger was transferred, and even then, only did so after news was posted in the Star Ledger.
Bishop O’Connell mishandled the situation with Fr. Riedlinger seven years ago and he has mishandled the situation with Fr. Williams now. I write this as a Catholic father trying to bring up my children in a church whose leadership has inflicted serious harm. Crimes like those that Fr. Riedlinger and Fr. Williams have been accused of cut to the heart of every parent’s worst fear.
When accusations are made, we need leaders who do more than cover their backsides by arranging for in-patient treatment or notifying the local authorities. We need for you tell us! You can include all the legally required disclaimers you want about how someone is innocent until proven guilty, but you need to tell us right away. Bishop O’Connell needs to resign or be removed, and Trenton needs a bishop who will restore the trust that he has broken.
Bill Murphy is a husband, father, and attorney residing in Belvidere.