Howell ex-pastor accused of abusing girls in 1983. Now a judge rules if they can testify
By Kathleen Hopkins
Asbury Park Press
January 27, 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.|
|The Rev. Henry 'Brendan' Williams, former pastor of St. Veronica Church in Howell, appears for his arraignment on child sex abuse charges in State Superior Court in Freehold Monday, January 6, 2020.|
|The Rev. Henry 'Brendan' Williams, former pastor of St. Veronica Church in Howell, is shown with his supporters after his arraignment on child sex abuse charges in State Superior Court in Freehold Monday, January 6, 2020.|
|File photo of Father Brendan Williams, former pastor of St. Veronica's RC Church in Howell|
Calling into question the accuracy of decades-old childhood memories, a judge on Tuesday ruled that two women who came forward almost 40 years later to accuse their former pastor of sexual impropriety will not be allowed to testify at the retired cleric’s upcoming child sexual abuse trial.
Superior Court Judge Ellen Torregrossa-O’Connor, in a 26-page ruling, said the stories of the two women who came forward in 2019 with allegations from 1983 were not clear and convincing enough to outweigh “the obvious prejudice" their testimony would pose to the Rev. Henry “Brendan" Williams, former pastor of St. Veronica R.C. Church in Howell, at his upcoming trial on child sexual assault charges stemming from alleged incidents in the late 1990s.
The two women came forward to authorities in October 2019 after learning Williams, now 81 and living in a retirement community for Catholic priests in Lawrence, had just been arrested on child sexual assault charges in the case dating to 1998.
One of the two women told detectives she was 13 and at a youth club meeting at St. Veronica’s in 1983 when Williams took her aside to an upstairs room in the rectory, where she thought he was going to kiss her. She told detectives she left before anything could happen.
The other woman told detectives she was 12 years old when Williams approached her in a vestibule after track practice and, while looking at her chest, told her, “You’re awfully big for sixth grade." She alleged he then began kissing her and touching her buttocks.
Both women told detectives they reported the incidents to their parents, who didn’t take them seriously.
Torregrossa-O’Connor said in her ruling that detectives did not conduct any further investigation to corroborate the women’s claims by seeking out others, such as family members, to whom they told their stories or, in the case of the first woman, finding out who else had attended the youth group meeting that night.
The judge said she made her ruling to exclude the women’s testimony with “great sensitivity to child victims who understandably make belated claims of sexual abuse," but noted the women came forward 38 years after the alleged events occurred.
“That nearly four-decade delay in time, at a minimum, calls into question the accuracy of the childhood memories, even assuming for the purposes of argument that the encounters with the defendant occurred in some form," Torregrossa-O’Connor wrote in her ruling.
“Given the 38-year delay in reporting and the very young age of these women at the time of the alleged events, this court cannot find itself clearly convinced that those events occurred in the manner described during these less than probative police interviews," the judge wrote.
“To hold the firm belief in the truth and accuracy of the claims necessary for admissibility would require this court to subscribe to the untested, uninvestigated recollection and interpretation of childhood events," she wrote.
The judge also noted there were no other similar incidents involving Williams reported in the time from between 1983 and 1998.
The Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the ruling.
When Williams was informed of the judge’s decision, he responded, “That’s very good news," said Robert Konzelmann, Williams’ attorney.
Konzelmann said the judge, in rendering her decision, took into consideration possible financial motives of the two women.
One of them, in her interview with detectives, asked them to inquire of her civil attorney the deadline for filing a lawsuit and to “ask him how much," the judge noted.
“I believe the financial incentive played a role in this case," Konzelmann said. “When these allegations were made, the Catholic Church was offering piles of cash to anyone who claimed child sexual abuse. Some claims were valid, but many were not."
Thomas Fichter, assistant Monmouth County prosecutor, had argued that the testimony of the two women would be relevant to rebut Williams’ claim that his alleged improper touching of a 12-year-old girl on three occasions in 1998 and 1999 was nothing but a misunderstanding.
In his statement to detectives, Williams said he may have touched the girl “in a friendly way," but denied touching her vaginal area, as alleged. He described having a close relationship with the girl and her family.
The state alleges the former pastor molested the girl on three occasions, once at a seafood restaurant while she was there with her family, another time at a yacht club and a third time at her home.
Konzelmann has asked the judge to examine the victim’s medical records, claiming that the victim suffers from a psychiatric illness that causes her to interpret things inappropriately.
Evidence of a criminal defendant’s so called “prior bad acts" are inadmissible at trial in New Jersey unless the state can show it is clear and convincing, relevant to the current charges, occurring close in time to the events alleged and its probative value outweighs its potential for prejudice to the defendant.
“This highly inflammatory evidence, if admitted, would unduly risk the high probability that the jury would utilize that evidence to draw an improper assumption — if the defendant did that, then he must have done this," Torregrossa-O’Connor concluded in her ruling. “This is precisely the intolerable danger against which the exclusionary shield of (the evidence rule) guards."
No new court dates in the case are scheduled.