2 Jersey Parishes Find Scandal Hits Too Close to Home

By Jennifer Golson and Tom Haydon
The Star-Ledger [Newark, New Jersey]
April 17, 2002

It's one thing when a scandal is a national media event, with headlines in places like Boston and the walled city of the Vatican.

But when controversy hits home, as the priest sex scandal did at two Roman Catholic parishes in New Jersey last weekend, the political suddenly becomes personal.

"There are 99,000 stories going around," said Andrew Southern, an usher at the Church of the Assumption in Roselle Park, where the pastor, the Rev. Dennis Cocozza, was replaced over the weekend following an allegation of misconduct.

Southern and his wife, Mary, showed up at the 5:30 p.m. Mass on Saturday and instead of Cocozza, they found the Rev. Ken Evans, who announced, without elaboration, that allegations had been made against Cocozza and that he, Evans, would be pastor for now.

"Saturday night, we came to church and there he (Evans) was," Mary Southern said yesterday. "I wish I knew."

At St. John Vianney Church in Colonia, the sense of shock and disbelief was much the same when worshipers discovered that the associate pastor, the Rev. John Butler, was given a leave of absence following allegations he had engaged in misconduct with a minor on Long Island in the late 1950s and 1960s.

"Everybody had respect for him. He was a very nice guy," Chester Osiecki, a longtime member of the church, said yesterday.

Osiecki said that during Sunday Mass, the Rev. Edward O'Neill, pastor of St. John Vianney, briefly announced that Butler, who had been there for a decade, was no longer at the parish.

"(O'Neill) just said he was getting a leave of absence," Osiecki said.

Staff workers at St. John Vianney yesterday said O'Neill was away and would not return until late.

A spokeswoman for Bishop Paul Bootkoski, the newly installed head of the Metuchen Diocese, confirmed that Butler was the previously unidentified priest who the diocese said last Friday had been removed.

"The prudent thing was to remove Father Butler from pastoral duty at this parish - St. John Vianney - or any other parish," said spokeswoman Joanne Ward.

Ward said officials of the diocese, which covers Middlesex, Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren counties, are continuing to review their personnel files to determine whether there are any outstanding allegations against clerics.

The other four dioceses in the state and bishops around the country are conducting similar reviews, as the church hierarchy seeks to cope with a scandal that began with charges against a Boston priest in January and has since spread to nearly every state.

After reviewing more than 500 personnel files going back 50 years, the Diocese of Trenton yesterday provided prosecutors with additional files on priests accused of molesting minors. Lawyers for the diocese turned over files on four priests to the Ocean County prosecutor and files on three others to the Burlington County prosecutor. On Monday, the diocese turned over files on eight priests to the Mercer County prosecutor.

The allegation against Butler - reportedly by a 50-year-old Brooklyn man who alerted the diocese and the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office - is new, although it involves abuse that allegedly took place when the victim was an altar boy, from 1958 to 1964, in Kings Park on Long Island.

The allegation that led to Cocozza's removal from Roselle Park also is new and involves a case from several years ago, said officials of the Archdiocese of Newark, which includes Union, Essex, Bergen and Hudson counties.

James Goodness, a spokesman for Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, would not comment on Cocozza. The church staff also declined comment.

Myers has said that the archdiocese is reviewing allegations against fewer than a dozen priests, and church officials met Monday with prosecutors from the four counties, reportedly to discuss how and when that information would be turned over.

Union County Prosecutor Thomas Manahan said yesterday he was not aware of any charges against Cocozza or any other priests in the county.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.