Former Priest Granted New Trial
Judges Cite Mistakes in Groping Conviction
By Justo Bautista
Record [Bergen County NJ]
April 18, 2006
A former Wyckoff priest convicted three years ago of groping a 13-year-old boy is entitled to a new trial, a state appellate court in Trenton ruled Monday. "He gets a whole new trial," defense attorney Brian Neary said of the defrocked Catholic priest, Michael Fugee. "He has always maintained his innocence, and now he gets a second chance."
In a unanimous decision, the three-judge panel said Fugee's statements to police after his arrest — that he questioned his own sexual identity — were prejudicial and should not have been heard by a jury, Neary said.
"They [Fugee's statements] injected into the case the specter of a jury deciding a defendant's guilt on the unfounded association between homosexuality and pedophilia," Neary said.
The panel also said the judge's instructions to the jury regarding Fugee's role as a supervisor were not specific enough, Neary said.
"Just because one has status [as a priest] doesn't mean they have supervisory status," Neary said.
Fugee's arrest in March 2001 caused a sensation in the Bergen County community, bringing "chaos all over the town," a nun testified at the trial in 2003.
The nun, Janice Thomas, first brought the accusation to the police.
At least a dozen members of Fugee's congregation at the St. Elizabeth Catholic Church attended the trial, giving the priest hugs in the hallway.
One longtime church member called Fugee "the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate priest" she had ever known. Others noted that Fugee led the church's youth group and was adored by children.
Central to the case were statements Fugee made to police the night of his arrest. He told investigators that he was struggling with his own sexual identity, a detective testified.
The boy testified at the trial that he didn't want to go to the police because he was embarrassed and feared challenging church authority.
Fugee testified that he was simply wrestling with the boy in a playful manner. He told jurors that he admitted to the crime at Wyckoff police headquarters because he felt intimidated by investigators and wanted to go home.
After Fugee's conviction, a juror wrote state Superior Court Judge Charles Walsh that she thought the priest was innocent and that the jury misunderstood statements made by the defense.
But Walsh said the allegations weren't so egregious that they warranted the extreme step of delving into the deliberations.
Neary said Monday that he had not yet told Fugee, now 46 and living "somewhere in New Jersey," about the ruling.
"I'm sure he'll be elated," Neary said.
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