3rd Priest Told to Step down during Sex Probe
Paterson Diocese Takes Action

By Ruth Padawer
The Record (Bergen County, NJ)
April 24, 2002

Another priest from the Paterson Diocese has been asked to step down, pending an investigation into allegations of sexual improprieties with a minor about two decades ago.

Diocesan officials announced Tuesday they had removed the Rev. Absalom Coutinho from active ministry after receiving two separate allegations two weeks ago. Though Coutinho works under the auspices of the Paterson Diocese, he has been serving in a Florida diocese since 1998, essentially on loan. It is not uncommon for priests to serve in dioceses different from the ones they belong to.

Upon receiving the complaints, Bishop Frank Rodimer informed the Florida diocese where Coutinho worked, placed him on administrative leave, and said he could not represent himself as a priest, at least until the investigation is over. The diocesan attorney, Ken Mullaney, also alerted local prosecutors that the complaints had come in, and promised to urge victims to go to legal authorities.

A statement by the diocese refers to two separate complaints.

Mullaney said one incident is alleged to have occurred in 1976 or 1977, when Coutinho worked for the Archdiocese of Newark at a Jersey City parish. The victim, a female, gave details to the diocesan chancellor, who offered her counseling, as per diocesan protocol.

Hudson County's First Assistant Prosecutor Terrence Hull said Tuesday he hadn't received the complaint.

A second accusation was turned over to the Morris County Prosecutor's Office, which is reviewing the information. Lt. Stephen Foley said the complaint is being reviewed. Coutinho worked in the Morris County community of Mount Olive.

Coutinho came to the United States from India in 1970, Mullaney said, but did not begin working for the Diocese of Paterson until 1984.

The diocese declined to say what work Coutinho was doing in Florida.

More recently, Coutinho worked at Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Wayne.

News of Coutinho's removal comes one day after the Paterson Diocese announced it had relieved two other priests of their duties after receiving allegations last week that the men had engaged in sexual contact with minors more than two decades ago. Both had spotless records before the recent complaint, Mullaney said.

Within hours, the prosecutors had decided not to bring charges against one of the priests, Ralph Sodano, saying the accusation was too old and too vague to pursue. Sodano is nevertheless still on administrative leave, and will be sent for a six-day, in-patient, independent psychological evaluation -- part of diocesan protocol when any sexual-abuse allegation is made.

"We are a defense firm," said Mullaney. "From a defense attorney's view, it would be a risk on the part of the Diocese of Paterson not to have someone in Father Sodano's position evaluated, even as clean as his record is and as specious as the claim appears to be. We don't want anyone to accuse us of taking the accusation lightly. We have to act defensively, especially in today's climate. " The accusation against the second priest -- identified by the diocese as Allen Stepien -- is being reviewed by the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office.


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