Priest Denies Guilt in Sex Case
Church Assignsa 'Response Team'

By Charles Austin
The Record [Bergen County NJ]
March 22, 2001

The Rev. Michael C. Fugee stood silently in Wyckoff Municipal Court on Wednesday while his attorney entered a not guilty plea to charges that he sexually abused a 13-year-old boy on several occasions in 1999.

The priest, his hands folded in front of him, made no comment during the brief arraignment. Judge Russel B. Teschon said the priest would remain free on $ 10,000 bail and advised him not to discuss the case.

The judge has ordered Fugee not to have any contact with his accuser, but there are no other court-imposed restrictions. Fugee's lawyer, Brian J. Neary of Hackensack, said his client would continue his duties at St. Elizabeth Roman Catholic Church in Wyckoff, where he has been assigned for three years. Describing Fugee as a "gentle, friendly man,"Neary said the priest has the support of people at St. Elizabeth and the Wyckoff community in general.

"He is greatly troubled by these charges,"Neary said, and he compared Fugee to the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who was accused of molesting a seminarian. That case never came to trial because the man later withdrew the accusation and reconciled with the cardinal.

The Archdiocese of Newark, in a statement issued late Wednesday, said the allegations against the priest would be handled initially by an archdiocesan"response team"that investigates any charges of morally inappropriate conduct.

James 1 Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said the team is composed of lawyers, counselors, psychologists, and other lay people not employed by the archdiocese.

"If appropriate,"Goodness said,"the response team will extend the offer of pastoral care, such as counseling, to the victim and the victim's family."

The team can also recommend similar care to the accused or suggest that the accused be relieved of his duties or reassigned.

Goodness said that"for the benefit of both the victim and the accused," all activities of the response team are confidential, and its members names are not released.

Beyond the brief statement, the archdiocese said it could make no additional comment, except to say that Catholic Community Services would provide counselors for students at St. Elizabeth school in the days ahead.

Fugee's lawyer told reporters he had received only minimal information from the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office and could not accurately describe how his client came to know his accuser.

Neary said the boy was not a parishioner at St. Elizabeth but that his mother might be. He also said Fugee was a friend of the boy's family.

Neary said the priest was not a teacher at the parish school, nor did he teach in the church's religious-education program. But the congregation's Web site says Fugee worked with a group called Gather the Children, a program for children in Grades 1 to 5 and that he was involved in religious education.

It may take four to eight weeks for the case to reach the next step in the legal process, Neary said.

The charges come at a time when concern over sexual abuse by priests has been mounting in church circles.

A committee of the National Conference of Catholic bishops has prepared a lengthy document,"Walk in the Light: A Pastoral Response to Child Sexual Abuse", which counsels churches to offer aid to those who have been abused, hold abusers accountable for their actions, and train priests and others to watch for signs that indicate abuse has occurred.

That document also says that"the church carries a heavy burden of responsibility in the area of sexual abuse,"and acknowledges that clergy and other church workers, as well as Catholic volunteers,"have sexually abused children and 1 adolescents."


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