Alleged Victim of Sex Abuse by North Jersey Priest Breaks Silence, Sues Archdiocese of Newark
By Kaitlyn Kanzler
January 23, 2020
After struggling for years just to get up each morning after allegedly being sexual abused by a man he trusted, Rodgers' faith is limited to believing there is a spiritual side to things.
Rodgers, who now lives in New York, is among the latest to file suit against the Catholic Church after New Jersey extended its civil statute of limitations on Dec. 1, allowing survivors a two-year window to bring a sex abuse case. Rodgers filed his suit against the Archdiocese of Newark for alleged sexual abuse by the Rev. Eugene Heyndricks, a former priest at Our Lady of the Lake in Verona.
|Our Lady of the Lake School (Photo: times file photo)|
Heyndricks, who died in 2007, was already on the list of credibly accused priests that the Archdiocese of Newark released last year. Heyndricks was placed on administrative leave in the early 2000s after he was caught in a police sting in Montreal soliciting an underage male prostitute. He pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to two years of unsupervised probation.
Heyndricks was ordained in 1981 and served at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Ridgewood from 1981 to 1989, Our Lady of the Lake in Verona from 1989 to 1994, Our Lady of Mercy in Park Ridge from 1994 to 1999, Church of St. John the Baptist in Fairview from 1999 to 2001, and St. John Nepomucene Church in Guttenberg from 2001 to 2003.
Rodgers said he was sexually abused by Heyndricks in 1990 when he was 14 years old at the end of his eighth-grade year at Our Lady of the Lake Elementary School. Coming from a conservative and religious family, Rodgers had even thought about becoming a priest. He was an altar boy and memorized the Sunday Mass prayers to recite to his mother.
|Christopher Rodgers filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Newark, alleging he was sexually abused by Father Eugene Heyndricks as teenager at Our Lady of the Lake in Verona. (Photo: Courtesy of Christopher Rodgers)|
But Rodgers,in an interview with NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey, now says his devoutness and vulnerability made him the perfect target for a predator. He said he was already in a bad spot, the victim of bullying in schooland neglect at home. For Rodgers, the alleged abuse was a perfect storm.
"Looking back, I can see that [Heyndricks] was grooming me and looking for chinks in the armor," Rodgers said. "We confided in him and had that trust."
A predator priest in a position of power has a command over a vulnerable child's trust, and Heyndricks had the church's hierarchy to protect him, Rodgers said, something he said was evident because of the way Heyndricks was frequently moved to different parishes.
Rodgers said the abuse didn't start immediately. When he and some of the other boys would wait around the rectory waiting to be picked up, he said Heyndricks would crack the occasional dirty joke.
"We thought, 'Oh wow. He's cool. He's on our level, he gets us,'" Rodgers said.
Following the initial dirty jokes, Rodgers said the priest grabbed his genitals, but Rodgers' initially brushed it off as Heyndricks just messing around.
"You laughed it off but it was awkward and didn't feel so good," he said.
Then came the offer to look at Playboy Magazines in Heyndricks' room, Rodgers said. At first he didn't go, but one day his mother was late picking him up. Rodgers said Heyndricks took him up to his room in the rectory and sexually abused him.
Not long after that, someone at the school learned that Heyndricks had behaved inappropriately and a meeting was called. Priests and nuns asked the students if anyone had experienced anything. Rodgers said one of the priests told them to think carefully about what they were going to say because Heyndricks was a priest and whatever could be said could damage his career.
At the time, Rodgers said he was so scared and ashamed of what happened that he "sugar-coated" what he told them.
"I didn't say what happened, just that he wanted me to come up and look at Playboys and that was it," Rodgers said. "I had no experience sexually. Of course, I was interested in girls and curious about things but I wasn't active by any means. When that happened, I was confused and ashamed and scared and thought it was my fault — that I was bad and made him do something bad."
Maria Margiotta, director of communications and public relations with the Archdiocese, said that "the Archdiocese of Newark takes all allegations of sexual abuse seriously. It would be inappropriate for us to discuss publicly matters in litigation and/or under review by law enforcement.".
Not long after the alleged abuse by Heyndricks, Rodgers said, he was sexually abused by an attendant at Camp Glen Gray for Boy Scouts in Mahwah. In December, Rodgers filed a lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America.
After years of silence, depression and self-medicating, Rodgers said the Me Too movement and thecase of convicted child molester Larry Nassar propelled him to speak about what had happened to him.
"I should be dead 10 times over," Rodgers said. "I realized you can't run from this tidal wave. You have to jump through the fire with the knowledge you will be stronger on the other side."
Rodgers said he wants to push himself past the negative feelings and focus on being healthy emotionally. He said his wife and her family have been a great support network for him and are helping him move forward. He also credits music with saving his life.
In the end, Rodgers' faith in the spiritual comes from self-healing through meditation. For him, faith in God or organized religion is broken.
"These people act like middlemen, but we're all human and on equal ground," Rodgers said. "We're fragile. We all die at one point. No one is closer to the divine than the other."
Rodgers hopes his story will help other victims come forward about the abuse they suffered.
Jay Mascolo with Rebenack, Aronow, & Mascolo in New Brunswick is Rodgers' lawyer, and his firm currently represents over five dozen other sexual abuse survivors. He said Rodgers' case is the only one where there are allegations against both the Archdiocese and the Boy Scouts.
Two more suits were announced against the Archdiocese of Newark on Wednesday by Jeff Anderson & Associates. The Minnesota-based firm represents more than 100 people who say they were sexually abused by members of the clergy.
The new suits allege that Father David Ernst abused three people during his time at Our Lady Help of Christians Parochial School in East Orange and while at The Church of St. Mary in Rutherford. Ernst died in 1988 and was one of the priests included on the Archdiocese's list of credibly accused priests.
And last week, the chaplain of Oratory Preparatory School in Summit was placed on leave pending a criminal investigation, school and diocesan officials said.
The Rev. Salvatore DiStefano is on indefinite leave pending an investigation by both law enforcement and the Archdiocese of Newark regarding “complaints issued over the last several days," the school's administration wrote in a letter.
Margiotta said the Archdiocese of Newark is committed to "accountability and transparency" regarding sex abuse allegations and is working in cooperation with state authorities.
"We work daily with victims and their legal representatives to provide support, to help resolve allegations, and to help bring them closure," she said. "The Archdiocese already has made efforts to bring about resolution and closure, joining with the other dioceses in New Jersey to establish the Independent Victims Compensation Program to offer compensation to eligible survivors who were sexually abused by clergy of the Church while minors," she said.
"While this program has been a viable option for some victims to achieve a level of closure, it always was understood that some may seek resolution through other avenues."
Kaitlyn Kanzler covers Essex County for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @KaitlynKanzler8