Morris Authorities Dismiss Allegation of Abuse by Priest

By Brian Donohue, Tom Haydon and Brian T. Murray
April 23, 2002

Just 24 hours after parishioners of a Morris County church learned that their pastor had been removed over an allegation of misconduct, county prosecutors dismissed the claim as unfounded.

The Rev. Ralph Sodano, pastor of Our Lady of the Mountain in Schooleys Mountain, Washington Township, will remain on administrative leave until he can be evaluated by a team of psychologists, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Paterson said.

Sodano was one of three New Jersey pastors to be temporarily relieved of their duties in the past week after people contacted church officials with allegations that date back decades.

Officials in Morris County said yesterday there was not enough evidence for a probe to continue. Additionally, the hearsay allegations pertained to incidents that may have unfolded between 1976 and 1978 - too long ago for prosecutors to act upon now.

"Beyond the fact that it would be clearly outside the statute of limitations for a prosecution, there are a lot of other issues that make this an allegation that is not viable for prosecution," Stephen Foley, a spokesman for the Morris County Prosecutor's Office, said yesterday.

"In fairness, it would not even be responsible for us to comment on the type of allegation involved. The information came third-hand - it was reported to the diocese, which reported it to us - and no victim has come forward. So we're closing the matter," he added.

The case illustrates the difficult task faced by prosecutors who are dealing with allegations of misconduct that are often decades old.

It also highlights an increasingly thorny challenge faced by embattled church officials striving to maintain a delicate balance between reacting swiftly to new allegations and protecting the privacy of their own priests.

News that Sodano, a former Navy chaplain, was being placed on leave was delivered from the pulpit during Sunday Mass, shocking parishioners of the 950-family church.

"We were all in disbelief," said one former parish council member. "People just left the Mass blank- faced. People seemed just stunned."

Michael Hurley, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it is disturbing that Sodano was publicly associated with a criminal allegation, even if briefly, amid the supercharged atmosphere surrounding priests and claims of sexual abuse.

"In an effort to be as open and transparent as possible, the nation's dioceses are bending over backwards to provide prosecutors with any and all information regarding allegations about priests," he said. "The dioceses in the nation are trying to deal with a situation that may have been ignored in the past, and it is very likely the names of innocent people will be out there. The public must keep this all in perspective."

Marianna Thompson, spokeswoman for Bishop Francis Rodimer, said Sodano will still be subject to a physical and psychological examination before it is decided whether to return him to his post.

"The process still applies," Thompson said. "He will be going for evaluation and when the diocesan response team has received the elements of that evaluation, and we've done our own consultation, we will make a decision about Father's assignment."

"This is the only allegation that's ever been made about Father Sodano," Thompson said.

In addition to Sodano, Rodimer this past weekend placed another pastor on administrative leave, diocese officials said. The allegation against the pastor also arose last week and dates back 20 years ago, Thompson said. The case was turned over to the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office, she said.

Passaic County Prosecutor Boris Moczula confirmed that his office had received a phone call yesterday from the diocese regarding an allegation of abuse occurring over 20 years ago in Passaic County. Moczula said he could not identify the priest.

In Middlesex County, church officials announced Sunday that Monsignor Michael Cashman, a popular priest at St. James Roman Catholic Church in Woodbridge, is taking a leave of absence while the Diocese of Metuchen investigates claims of inappropriate behavior alleged to have happened 20 years ago at a parish in Old Bridge.

Officials with the diocese released a brief statement acknowledging that Cashman had taken temporary leave as a result of recent allegations of wrongdoing.

Cashman, 51, voluntarily left his post April 16, one day after the diocese received allegations that he abused children in a family while he was an associate pastor at St. Ambrose Church in Old Bridge in the late 1970s and early 1980s, said Raymond Gill, the Woodbridge lawyer representing Cashman.

In a letter from a lawyer representing the family, a mother claims Cashman abused her sons more than 20 years ago, said Gill.

Cashman, in his defense, "can speak volumes about the allegations and can produce legions of witnesses," Gill said.

Members of St. James, a parish of more than 4,000 families, were told during Sunday Masses that Cashman had left his post.

Church members are preparing an around-the-clock vigil to pray for Cashman, said St. James parishioner Beth Dispoto. "Not just for Father Mike but for everyone involved," including people making the allegations. "It's heart-breaking. My children love (Cashman). They are drawn to him."

Parishioner Jack Zarkowski refused to believe the claims against Cashman, whom he called "the best thing to hit this parish in 45 years."

With a foot-long beard and a strong Irish brogue, Cashman was sometimes known as the "little elf." Although he left St. Ambrose Church in Old Bridge more than 15 years ago, he made a lasting impression on parishioners. "They miss him," said the Rev. Charles Kelly, pastor of St. Ambrose. "I heard that when he left, (parishioners) wanted to go to the diocese to have him stay here."


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