Former Newark Archbishop of 15 Years, John Myers, Dies at 79

By Abbott Koloff and Deena Yellin
September 24, 2020

Archbishop John J. Myers, who was known for taking strong and sometimes controversial stands during the 15 years that he led the Newark Archdiocese, died on Thursday at the age of 79, months after moving to an Illinois senior facility because of poor health.

Myers said when he retired four years ago that he was proud to leave behind two “thriving institutions,” Seton Hall University and Catholic Charities, and for having ordained almost 200 priests during his time in Newark.

He also built a legacy of speaking his mind about issues that were important to him, like his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Myers was installed as the fifth Archbishop of Newark on Oct. 9, 2001 after being appointed by Pope John Paul II. Originally from Illinois, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1966 and installed as the Bishop of Peoria, Illinois in 1987. He offered his resignation in 2016 when he turned 75, as is required by the church.

Myers had been criticized for how he handled some sexual abuse allegations made against priests of the archdiocese and for a decision to use church funds to add an expensive wing onto his retirement home in Hunterdon County. When he moved to Illinois earlier this year, the archdiocese said the home would be sold.

Myers did not shy away from controversy, issuing a statement in 2004 that appeared to be aimed at then-Gov. James McGreevey, saying elected officials who support abortion rights should spare the church “scandal” by not seeking communion when they attend Mass.

In 2012, during the run-up to the presidential election, he issued a sweeping pastoral statement urging Catholics to vote “in defense of marriage and life” and warned that passage of same-sex marriage laws might lead to a government crackdown on religious freedoms.

In a 2015 letter to pastors, he said Catholics should refrain from receiving communion if they are in a marriage that is not recognized by the church or if they publicly oppose any of the church’s teachings. He also said all Catholics should avoid events that “endorse or support” people or groups that reject or ignore those teachings.

The letter was signed on Sept. 22, the day Pope Francis arrived in Cuba on his way to the United States, where the pontiff expressed a message of inclusiveness that has been the hallmark of his papacy. Myers said through a spokesman at the time that there was no special reason for the timing of his letter to pastors, but that it was issued to clear up confusion among priests following a Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage across the nation.

Dugan McGinley, a professor of religion at Rutgers University, said that Myers was not an activist, but simply adhered to conservative Catholic principles and had a distinctive style that left its mark on the archdiocese.

“He succeeded [Archbishop Theodore] McCarrick, who was known for being progressive, and when he came in, he really turned that around,” McGinley said. “The staunch conservative was aligned more with John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He was not as willing to embrace liturgical reforms or creativity, nor was he willing to accept the LGBTQ community.”

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, who succeeded Myers as leader of the Newark Archdiocese in 2017, issued a statement about his passing: “On behalf of my brother Bishops and the entire family of God here in our local Church of Newark, I extend my heartfelt prayers and condolences to his family. Let us thank God for Archbishop Myers’ service and his love of our Church. I entrust him to the loving arms of our Blessed Mother Mary, and I pray that Our Lord grant him peace.”

Father Stephen Fichter, the pastor of St. Elizabeth's in Wykoff, said he has fond memories of Myers, and that he could be “warm and helpful.”

“Bishop is one of the hardest roles in the church, trying to get everyone on the same page,” Fichter said. “He did his best. I know I am very grateful for his presence in my life."

Mark Crawford, a victims' advocate, said that he was "sorry to hear of his passing."

“I am also sorry for the victims of clergy abuse who were hurt by his harboring of those clerics who harmed them," said Crawford, the New Jersey director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP. "I fear the many secrets he held about his clerics who abused children may now be gone too.”

Myers’ move to Illinois early this year came as the Catholic Church in New Jersey faced a flood of sex abuse lawsuits after the state loosened its civil statute of limitations on Dec. 1, 2019, making it easier for accusers to file such complaints. The Newark Archdiocese has been named in more than 70 lawsuits filed under the new law.

Myers was in charge when the archdiocese secretly settled cases in 2005 and 2007 with adult seminary students who alleged sexual misconduct by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The cardinal, one of the church's most powerful leaders for decades, was defrocked last year amid allegations that he sexually abused minors and sexually harassed adult seminarians.

In another case, Myers allowed a former Wyckoff cleric to continue working even after he confessed to groping a boy.

Before stepping down, Myers defended his leadership of the archdiocese over the years in a wide-ranging interview with The Record and

He said that an increasingly secular culture had “undermined” the family and diminished the role faith plays in shaping public policy.

“I’ve been a bishop 29 years this year and I’ve just seen the culture changing,” Myers said in his chancery office on July 14, 2016. “I think one of the problems is that if you take the secular position, that it’s just what we can see, hear, taste and touch and contain within our thought process, that’s eliminating most of reality, because reality is beyond us.”

The archbishop outlined a vision of a church that welcomes everyone, as Pope Francis has insisted, but is also pure in its ideals, saying it’s important for Catholics to be “honest” about their beliefs and to follow the church’s social doctrine. He pushed back against positions held by then-Gov. Chris Christie — a friend and confidant. The governor’s acknowledged use of birth control and opposition to Syrian refugees, he said, were not in line with Catholic teachings.

He also offered words of advice to Pope Francis.

“If I had any suggestion for him, and I don’t give orders to the pope, it would be, ‘Don’t give so many informal comments on airplanes,’” Myers said. “Because those are the things that can get used by other people for their own purposes.”

Myers was referring to Francis’ impromptu meetings with the media aboard his plane heading to and from Rome. During one session, Francis famously said, “Who am I to judge?” in response to a question about gay priests. Francis has said that the church should be more welcoming to people who are gay.

Victims’ advocates have been particularly harsh in their view of Myers and his handling of sex abuse cases.

Bruce Novozinsky, the author of “Purple Reign: Sexual Abuse and Abuse of Power in the Diocese of Trenton,” said Myers was “responsible for the harboring of known and documented sexual predators while knowingly and willfully placing them in direct contact with children.” He called the archbishop “the face” of the church coverup in New Jersey.

In one famous case, the archbishop allowed Michael Fugee to continue working as a priest and to live in a church rectory after the cleric confessed to fondling a boy at St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Wyckoff.

Fugee recanted his confession, and his 2003 conviction on a charge of aggravated criminal sexual contact was dismissed on a technicality. Prosecutors did not retry the case, but Fugee and church officials agreed that he would no longer work with children.

Under a 2002 agreement among U.S. Catholic bishops, priests are to be removed from ministry after one credible allegation of abuse of children.

In 2013, Fugee was found to have violated the agreement with law enforcement by hearing confessions at youth group retreats across the state. Bergen County Prosecutor's Office officials said at the time that they would take over monitoring Fugee from the church, adding that they "no longer have confidence" in the archdiocese to abide by a 2007 agreement that barred the priest from working with children. Fugee was later defrocked.

Myers also took heat for paying $500,000 to expand his retirement house in Franklin Township in Hunterdon County, adding a wing that included an indoor swimming pool and three fireplaces. That led to a 2014 petition containing 17,000 signatures urging Myers to sell the home.

The archbishop defended the expansion of that home in the 2016 interview with, saying cash used for the construction was eventually covered by a restricted donation intended for housing for church leadership. He said he needed space for an office and a more private area for guests. The new wing added a fifth bedroom to the home. It became his retirement home until earlier this year when he moved to Illinois to be closer to his family as his health was failing, according to church officials.








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