Diocese to Check Files since 1950s

By Nancy Shields
Asbury Park Press
March 22, 2002

CONCERNED about the sexual abuse scandals that have deeply shaken Roman Catholic priests and parishioners, the Trenton Diocese is reviewing its files for the past 50 years to compile a report on substantiated allegations of sexual abuse by priests, Bishop John M. Smith said yesterday.

Smith committed to making "some kind of statement" once a diocesan report covering parishes in Mercer, Burlington, Monmouth and Ocean counties is compiled, but that was as far as he was willing to go yesterday on what the public will learn from the review.

The bishop said he was pleased Pope John Paul II spoke out yesterday on the subject.

"We're all just devastated by the horror of child abuse, which in our society is quite a plague in many, many areas," Smith said. "But for children whose trust was betrayed by people responsible for the moral upbringing of people, this is horrendous to all of us."

Smith said priests are "very embarrassed" to know their brothers have "betrayed their vows, their church and their brother priests by doing this."

The pope said sex abuse cases have cast suspicion over all priests, most of whom perform their duties honorably. Cases that have surfaced in the United States have sparked questions about why some priests were allowed to continue their jobs in the church, why some allegations were covered up, and what policies of disclosure were in place.

The Trenton Diocese's policy, Smith said, calls for churches and schools to report any such allegation to the state Division of Youth and Family Services for investigation. If the charge is substantiated, he said, the case is turned over to a prosecutor.

If an adult comes forward and accuses a priest of sexual abuse when that adult was a child, the church will investigate, he said.

"If, say tomorrow, we were to try to internally investigate the claim, and if it has some reasonable foundation, we would at this point report to the prosecutor's office and let them make a determination," Smith said.

The diocese's policy came down from the Catholic Conference in 1985, was updated in 1993, and may need further updating, he said.

One of the issues being discussed, the bishop said, is when a statute of limitations runs out for a priest to be prosecuted.

"That's kind of a new wrinkle for us," he said, adding that it's one of the points being discussed by church authorities.

"The diocese also is intent on respecting the wishes of the victim," Smith said.

"They'll (the victims) complain but say, 'Don't use our name,'" he said. "We try to respect the victim as well, but often the victim doesn't want to be involved in judicial procedure."

tease 'Deeply saddening'

The Rev. Brendan Williams, pastor of St. Veronica's Roman Catholic Church in Howell, said yesterday that he, other priests, and many of the people he speaks with both in the Shore area and around the country are deeply saddened by "these horrors that someone in the position of a priest would do this and destroy the faith, the trust and oftentimes the whole person of individuals."

"The second aspect of sadness is the alleged failure on part of authorities to take appropriate action in some of these cases is deeply saddening and troubling," Williams said.

He said that over the years he has seen his own diocese grow in "an understanding of pedophilia for what it is, an addiction, a sincerely flawed addiction, not just moral decadence, and now they're taking much more serious steps in dealing with it."

Williams said the only case he has had to deal with was an allegation of sexual misconduct by a former priest of his church that surfaced in 1998.

The priest, the Rev. Robert J. Parenti, was 59 when the allegation was made public. He was a pastor at St. Denis Church in Manasquan but at one time had served St. Veronica's. The details of the allegation were not made public but involved misconduct with a minor some 25 years before.

Bishop Smith suspended Parenti after the allegation was raised and said yesterday that, to his knowledge, Parenti is no longer in the ministry.

Some people at the time said they supported the church's suspension of Parenti but believed the diocese should not have publicized the suspension so quickly. Those people were told by the diocese that the public had a right to be informed because the allegation involved a minor.

The Rev. George Barrios, who works with the Hispanic community at St. Rose of Lima Church in Freehold, said yesterday that priests must not be painted with a broad brush at this time of sexual-abuse revelations.

"Not all priests are the same," Barrios said. "We're human beings, we make mistakes some times, we disagree, but we can't judge everyone the same."

He said he felt sorry for innocent victims and innocent priests when people were accused falsely.


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