Howell ex-pastor’s sex abuse scandal: Why did students come forward decades later?

By Kathleen Hopkins
Asbury Park Press
January 19, 2021

The Rev. Henry 'Brendan' Williams, former pastor of St. Veronica Church in Howell, is shown after his arraignment on child sex abuse charges in State Superior Court in Freehold Monday, January 6, 2020.

[with video]

Soon after news broke about the arrest on sex charges of a beloved former pastor of St. Veronica R.C. Church in Howell, two alumni of the parish’s grammar school came forward in 2019 with allegations that the priest acted inappropriately when they were students at the school decades ago.

One of the women told detectives the Rev. Henry “Brendan" Williams kissed her repeatedly and patted her on the buttocks one afternoon in 1983, when she was 12.

The other said she thought Williams was going to kiss her after he took her aside to an office to show her something, but she got up and left before anything could happen. The woman said she was 13 when that occurred in 1983.

Williams, now 81, is not charged in connection with either women’s story, but prosecutors want the women to testify at Williams’ upcoming trial on charges he sexually assaulted another child in the late 1990s.

Defense attorney Robert Konzelmann is trying to block the testimony, questioning why the women took 36 years to come forward to authorities with the allegations and suggesting they did so at a time when attorneys handling clergy sex-abuse lawsuits were flooding the airwaves with advertisements for clients.

Thomas Fichter, an assistant Monmouth County prosecutor, acknowledged the statute of limitations has long passed to prosecute crimes that may have occurred in 1983, but said the earlier events are relevant to the case at hand because the stories of the two women are similar to that of the victim in the case for which Williams is under indictment. That victim was 12 when she claims Williams touched her inappropriately, on her inner thigh and vaginal area, on two different occasions at two different restaurants while she was with her parents and a third time at her home, according to Fichter. 

“What the defendant has alleged and asserted is, he did nothing more than innocently touch her," Fichter said at a hearing last week, referring to the victim from the late 1990s. “This is what ties in the relevance of the prior actions."

Konzelmann disagreed, saying a 16-year gap in time from the 1983 incidents and a lack of other evidence to support the two women’s stories is enough to keep them from testifying at the trial.

“The evidence is not clear and convincing," Konzelmann argued at the hearing Wednesday before Superior Court Judge Ellen Torregrossa-O’Connor. “These are bare allegations with no corroboration, with financial incentives on the part of these witnesses to exaggerate or make up their claims."

The prosecutor unfairly wants a jury to hear that Williams has done this before, so he must be a pedophile, Konzelmann said.

Konzlemann, meanwhile, asked the judge to examine psychiatric records of the victim from the late 1990s.

“The mark of her psychiatric illness deals with her interpreting things inappropriately," Konzelmann said.Williams was pastor of St. Veronica’s from 1979 to 2012 and as such, headed a school with an enrollment of about 500 students. He now resides in a retirement community for Catholic clergy in Lawrence.

Torregrossa-O’Connor has not yet ruled on whether the two women can testify for the prosecution at Williams’ upcoming trial.

At last week’s hearing, the judge viewed videotaped statements both women gave to detectives in 2019. They said they came forward to authorities after learning of Williams’ arrest in September 2019 on sexual assault charges, as a result of an investigation by the state attorney general’s New Jersey Clergy Abuse Task Force.

The first woman told detectives she was 13 and at a youth group meeting in 1983 when Williams took her aside to an office, telling her “he was going to show me something from Ireland," according to the woman’s videotaped statement.

Once in the room, however, the woman said, “I thought he was going to kiss me, and I had my head down, and he was real close to me, and I don’t remember what he was saying. 

“I was just so blind-sided by the whole act of it," she told detectives. “I was like, ‘I’ll be right back.’"

The woman, who told detectives she had been aware of someone who was victimized by a different priest, said she left the room before anything could happen and did not return. She told detectives she felt “sick to my stomach" and “betrayed" afterward.

She said she told her grandparents and mother what had occurred, but they didn’t believe her. Her mother told her she may have “misunderstood" what happened, according to the videotaped statement.

The woman said she stopped attending the youth group after that. 

The second woman said she was waiting in the church vestibule for her mother to pick her up after track practice one afternoon when Williams approached her.

“The first thing he said was, ‘You’re awfully big for sixth grade,’" and he looked right at my chest," the woman told detectives. 

“He kept getting closer and closer," the woman told detectives. “He kissed me repeatedly."

At the same time, he “pat down on my butt," she said. 

“I was wearing shorts," she said. “I remember the shorts. They were red shorts."

The woman said she told her mother what happened.

“I expected her to go to the school right away, but she never did," she told detectives. 

“At the time there, was reluctance and disbelief to believe these these type of allegations," Fichter said at the hearing. “Things have clearly changed."

The second woman told detectives she encountered a St. Veronica parishioner with two young children in 2011 and warned her not to send her children to the school. 

“I knew Father Williams was still there," she said. “I knew there was danger."

Soon afterward, the woman said she got a call from a detective at the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office.

She later gave a statement to officials at the Diocese of Trenton, and "They offered me compensation," she told detectives.

Konzelmann pointed out the woman asked the detectives during her statement to call a specific attorney “to see how much money she was going to get."

Meanwhile, Konzelmann said Williams, questioned by the diocese about the woman’s allegations, took and passed a lie-detector test.

Konzelmann questioned prosecutor’s Detective Thomas Manzo, one of two detectives who took the woman’s statement, whether he inquired about the questions Williams was asked for the lie-detector test. The detective said he hadn’t. 

Manzo also said he never reached out to the parents of the two women he had questioned and said there was nothing to support their allegations except their own statements. 

“It would have been helpful had (the two women) been given lie-detector tests," Konzelmann said after the hearing.



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