Playful Wrestling Turned Ugly, Teen Says
Testifies at Sex Trial of 43-Year-Old Wyckoff Priest
By Peter Pochna
The Record [Bergen County NJ]
April 9, 2003
The boy said he was 13 when the Wyckoff priest first touched his crotch as they wrestled playfully at the youngster's home.
He initially didn't think much of it, the boy said. He was confused. But then, he said, the Rev. Michael Fugee continued to touch him during four more wrestling encounters in 1999 and 2000.
"It annoyed me that somebody like that, who I thought I could trust, got that close to me and used me in that way," the boy, now 17, told jurors Tuesday during the opening of Fugee's trial in Superior Court in Hackensack.
Fugee, 43, was arrested in March 2001. Although authorities said he admitted groping the boy, Fugee has pleaded not guilty to criminal sexual contact and endangering the welfare of a child. He is free on $10,000 bail and has been placed on administrative leave from his post as assistant pastor at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Elizabeth.
The allegations surfaced just as tales of pedophilia by Roman Catholic priests began shaking dioceses around the country. The charges shocked church members in suburban Wyckoff, about a dozen of whom attended the first day's testimony Tuesday before Judge Charles Walsh.
During about three hours on the stand, the boy spoke clearly and appeared confident. He displayed little emotion as he described how his parents were divorced, his mother befriended Fugee, and he ended up feeling that he would ruin his mother's friendship with the priest and that his father would overreact if he disclosed the alleged advances.
The boy said he initially told a friend at school, who kept the matter quiet. Eventually, he said, he confided in a longtime friend of his mother's. That woman eventually brought the accusations to police - against his wishes, the boy told jurors.
"I didn't want to be the kid who went up against the church," he said. "I was kind of embarrassed by it."
Defense attorney Brian Neary urged the jurors to consider the circumstances. The wrestling incidents took place not in private encounters but in the middle of the living room during family gatherings, at a time when the boy was shaken by "the chaos" of his parents' divorce, he said.
"This is horseplay and wrestling twisted and turned into a convoluted story that puts this man on trial," Neary said as Fugee sat passively in a gray jacket and blue tie.
Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Demetra Maurice insisted there was nothing accidental about the touching that the boy said occurred over his clothes.
"The touching was for sexual gratitude because the defendant said so to police," Maurice told jurors.
Detective John Haviland of the Bergen County Prosecutor's Officet testified that when he interviewed the cleric at Wyckoff police headquarters in March 2001, Fugee at first "began swearing on a Bible and to God that he had no awareness of touching [the boy ]."
But Haviland said he told Fugee he didn't believe him, and the priest then changed his story. Fugee said he was struggling with his own sexual identity and "was infatuated with crotches," Haviland testified.
The detective read the jury a transcript of the interview, in which Fugee said his actions were intentional, that he was responding to an urge, and that he knew it was wrong.
Neary previously has argued that investigators intimidated Fugee into making the statement, violating his rights. However, a judge in December ruled that the information was obtained legitimately.
The trial was scheduled to continue today and is expected to conclude this week.
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