Beliefs Ethics Institutions

Priests accused of abuse hiding in plain sight

The Archdiocese of Newark has placed priests accused of abuse in this retirement home in Rutherford, not far from two schools. Photo by Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger

RUTHERFORD, N.J. (RNS) Norberto Nierras says he saw the man with the shock of white hair all the time along Home Avenue, a residential block that teems with children from the Catholic elementary and high schools a few hundred yards away.

Archdiocese of Newark places pedophile priests in this retirement home in Rutherford, which not far from two schools, for supervision. Photo by Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger

The Archdiocese of Newark has placed priests accused of abuse in this retirement home in Rutherford, not far from two schools. Photo by Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger

The man, Nierras said, came and went as he pleased, strolling the Rutherford neighborhood or sitting on a bench outside the four-story building he called home: the St. John Vianney Residence for Retired Priests.

What Nierras didn’t know is that the man, Monsignor Peter Cheplic, had been accused of drugging and molesting four teenage boys in the 1970s and 1980s. Or that the Archdiocese of Newark found the claims credible enough to remove him from ministry in 2006.

Cheplic, who has denied the allegations, is one of at least seven alleged sexual predators quietly placed in the Rutherford retirement home in the past 15 years, The Star-Ledger found. Some lived there a short time. Others have stayed for years. Neighbors said they were never informed of the men’s presence until told by a reporter.

“Parents need to be made aware of this,” said Nierras, 25, who has lived across the street from St. John Vianney for more than three years. “There are kids around this area constantly. I’m pretty sure people would be upset. I’m upset.”

Eleven years after the nation’s bishops confronted the clergy sex abuse crisis, vowing at a landmark summit in Dallas to make the protection of children a priority and to open a new era of transparency, the church continues to wrestle with a host of vexing questions and competing interests.

Does a credibly accused priest’s privacy trump public safety? Is the church capable of supervising alleged abusers? Should such priests even remain under the church’s care, drawing a salary, room and board?

All of those questions apply to people like Cheplic, who was barred from public ministry but not criminally prosecuted because, by the time his accusers came forward, the deadline to charge him had expired under the statute of limitations. Across New Jersey’s five dioceses, dozens of priests are believed to be in the same sort of limbo.

They include diocesan priests and clerics of religious orders, such as the Christian Brothers and the Benedictines. And they include priests who were barred from ministry in other states and have moved to or returned to New Jersey.

Precisely how many others there are — and where most of them live — remains unclear, because the state’s bishops, by and large, refuse to discuss the matter publicly.

The issues of supervision and transparency have taken on a renewed urgency in New Jersey this year after a series of revelations by The Star-Ledger about the Rev. Michael Fugee and other priests.

Fugee, 52, was criminally charged in May after the newspaper disclosed he attended youth retreats and heard confessions from minors in violation of a court-sanctioned agreement to stay away from children. He has since been released on bail.

Newark Archbishop John J. Myers and his spokesman, Jim Goodness, would not comment for this story, declining to say whether other accused priests lived in the Rutherford residence or in a second retirement home for priests in Caldwell.

The Star-Ledger found that at least two accused clerics lived in Caldwell, address records show. That facility, too, is next to a Catholic elementary school, Trinity Academy, on the grounds of St. Aloysius Parish.

A monitoring system with limitations

The newspaper posed more than a dozen questions about supervision and transparency to New Jersey’s bishops. Paterson Bishop Arthur Serratelli declined to comment. A spokesman for Camden Bishop Dennis Sullivan referred the newspaper to its website.

Spokeswomen for Trenton Bishop David M. O’Connell and Metuchen Bishop Paul Bootkoski issued statements that did not address the number of priests under supervision or where they are housed.

O’Connell’s spokeswoman, Rayanne Bennett, said the diocese immediately notifies law enforcement of abuse allegations and alerts pastors and the public to suspensions. The diocese also works to ensure that suspended priests do not have access to parish or school communities, Bennett said.

“The diocese makes every reasonable effort to maintain contact with the priest and exercise ongoing oversight,” she said. “However, the diocese has no legal power to control the individual’s place of residence or daily activities beyond the context of ministry.”

Bootkoski’s spokeswoman, Erin Friedlander, said the diocese “continues to seek out best practices for monitoring priests removed from ministry.”

While Goodness would not discuss the issue, he did provide some information about supervision in an email sent last month to pastors and administrators of Catholic schools to alert them this story was in progress.

Goodness wrote that 15 priests are currently under supervision and that four others whom Myers removed from ministry since 2001 have died.

The surviving priests must submit “periodic” written reports of their activities to the archdiocese. In recent years, Goodness wrote, the program has been expanded to include regular phone contact between the alleged abusers and the archdiocese’s minister for priests.

But clearly, the system has limitations, as Fugee demonstrated by openly spending time with members of the youth group at St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck. The church’s pastor, two youth ministers and the archdiocese’s vicar general, or second in command to Myers, have since been removed.

In July, The Star-Ledger disclosed that the archdiocese allowed the Rev. Robert Chabak to live at an Oradell parish for several months after Hurricane Sandy damaged his Ocean County home.

Neither the archdiocese nor the pastor informed parishioners of his background. Chabak was removed from ministry in 2004 for allegedly molesting a boy during a three-year span.

When a few members of the parish raised an outcry, Chabak was transferred to the retirement home in Rutherford. He has since moved back to his private residence.

O’Connell, the Trenton bishop, also came under fire last month after it was revealed that for more than a year, he declined to tell a parish in Jackson why an assistant pastor, the Rev. Matthew Riedlinger, had been pulled from the church.

The bishop did so only after he learned The Star-Ledger was preparing a story about Riedlinger, who had been accused of sexually harassing several young men and engaging in explicit sexual conversations with someone he thought to be a 16-year-old boy. After the story ran, O’Connell suspended Riedlinger from ministry.

Looking for a solution

Observers from inside and outside the priesthood say the church has made enormous improvements in child safety since the 2002 summit in Dallas. An annual audit conducted on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that in 2012, allegations against priests had dropped to their lowest level since data collection began in 2004.

At the same time, the observers say the incidents in New Jersey, along with others across the country, show that some bishops continue to operate too secretively and, as a result, put children at risk.

“Even though they pledged to be transparent in Dallas, here we are in 2013 and they’re not being forthright about who their offenders are,” said canon lawyer Patrick Wall, a former priest and Benedictine monk who now works for a Minnesota law firm that frequently sues the church over abuse allegations.

“The bishops have chosen to say the right words, but they have not followed through with their actions,” Wall said. “Until the day that cardinals and archbishops start going to jail, nothing is fundamentally going to change in the United States.”

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter and the former editor of America, a Catholic magazine, said it is “nonsense” to believe pastors, already overworked, can properly supervise priests who have been credibly accused of abuse.

“He can’t act like a probation officer for another priest,” Reese said. “He has neither the training nor the time.”

The conflict is exacerbated if pastor and priest are friends, Reese said.

“If you’re friends with the alleged criminal, you’re in denial, just like any family is,” he said.

In general, Reese is not wholly unsympathetic to the church’s position, particularly when it is confronted with elderly or ailing priests who committed abuses decades before.

“Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances,” Reese said. “If you’ve got a guy who did this 30 years ago and now he’s in a rest home with Alzheimer’s disease, are you going to take away his pension and wheel him to the sidewalk? This is complicated stuff.”

Some bishops move immediately to laicize credibly accused clergy members, or kick them out of the priesthood altogether, Reese said.

But that response, too, has drawn little consensus because of the obvious danger: potential predators released into communities, typically with no supervision at all.

“What we’ve learned is that this is not a sin or a disease that can be treated,” said Wall. “This is a true psychic infirmity, and the only way to treat it is to remove them from their target population.”

Wall suggests bishops return to a tactic the church used for centuries to keep predatory priests bottled up: isolating them in monasteries for a “life of prayer and penance.” Hundreds of such monasteries exist across the country, he said.

(Mark Mueller writes for The Star-Ledger.)


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Mark Mueller


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  • I don’t excuse the church because it had clear guidelines and directives from canon law. However, I question the almost single coverage of Catholic priests. The malady and crime exists elsewhere, and it gets little coverage. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has huge problems, but they don’t seem to get coverage, and their style has been the same as the R.C. church, that is, hide them and don’t tell. It is even against a Jewish precept to bring in the authorities.

  • Leo, I agree. My perspective: liberal “journalists” are like most other liberals in that they’d like to see religion cast aside entirely. They figure that their best bet in accomplishing this is first to go after the big cahouna, the Catholic Church. Bring it down and all the other cards in the religion deck will fall as well. Perhaps you’ve noticed that liberals don’t go after even the extremists among the Muslims. No, they find excuses to exonerate them.

    The priest’s “with history” have been living at the residence for years and none of them has been accused of anything in all that time. Geez, that’s reason to be upset, isn’t it.

  • Maybe the liberals who don’t like the Catholic Church would like to see them housed at Guantanamo. There appears to be a different standard here applied to the church and the priests than for other Americans, and absolutely no evidence that the Diocese of Newark violated any New Jersey law related to Sex Offender Registration and Community Notification.

  • Re: “However, I question the almost single coverage of Catholic priests.”

    “Single coverage”? Uh, no. Hardly. There’s been plenty of media coverage of child abuse by clergy in other religions. A quick Google search will turn up many stories involving other religions. For instance, in the example you cited:

    Ultra-Orthodox Shun Their Own for Reporting Child Sexual Abuse (NY Times)

    Brooklyn DA: Intimidation in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Sex Abuse Cases Worse Than Mob Cases (WNYC)

    Another much-more-recent example is this, involving a Protestant evangelical church:

    5 officials at Longmont church accused of failing to report alleged child abuse by youth pastor (Denver channel 7)

    The media report on child abuse in many venues, even outside religion, including this recent item:

    PD: Bloomfield teacher arrested for sex assault (WTNH)

    Catholic apologists’ complaint that the media “only” report on child abuse by priests, and by no one else, is patently untrue, as I’ve been able to demonstrate above. But even if it were, it would still not excuse the abuse nor the hierarchs’ cover-ups; abusing children is always wrong, no matter who does it, and without regard to how or when the media chooses to report on it. To think otherwise is “two wrongs make a right” thinking, and is fallacious.

  • How sad it is that not one of these comments was about the children who possibly had their innocence stolen from them from the very people they should have been able to trust the most. Instead you focus your comments on some sort of hypothesized paranoid liberal conspiracy theory about how these situations get reported, in right wing speak for anything but rightwing media, “mainstream media”.

    The “Big Kahuna” failed to bring these potential criminals to the real law authorities, but rather just moved them from one location to the next. This potentially (potentially only because not many were arrested tried and convicted because of these tactics), is not only morally corrupt, and shameful, but could also be a criminal act as they may have aided and abetted these child molesters, and prosecutable under the RICO Act as is was organization wide, and potentially driven from the top of the organization.

    Like the majority of the moderate Muslim community who does not stand up and speak out against those that do harm in the name of their religion, the Catholics majority has also not collectively screamed about the atrocities committed by their clergy, and their “Big Kahuna” church. Unfortunately, it instead has made appalling comments like these, which seek to divert attention from it. You should be ashamed of yourselves

  • So you are less annoyed about the sexual abuse and more about what you perceive is some kind of selective coverage. A church’s reputation is more important to you than children being victimized. This is disgusting.

    The RCC is much bigger, better funded and much more organized than virtually all other faiths in the developed world. Their efforts at covering up these scandals rivals no other religious group in terms of people used, money spent and just plain systematic bad behavior. Of course they will get the majority of the attention.

    Other faiths get reported for these kinds of scandals as well. Your objection is dishonest claptrap.

  • Blaming the “liberal media” for this sort of thing is the weakest, stupidest excuse you can come up with. Like most people who use religion to excuse reprehensible actions, you are completely unconcerned with people harmed and the reality of the situation and more concerned with scoring cheap talking points.

    “The priest’s “with history” have been living at the residence for years and none of them has been accused of anything in all that time.”

    And I bet you would love to have them watch your children in an unsupervised manner.

  • How about we lock up the people who make silly excuses for child molesters instead and those who cover up their crimes?

    At least the child molesters can claim they act under compulsion. The people who cover their tracks and their apologists act with immoral intent in efforts to preserve their church at the cost of credibility and justice.

    Churches should be held to a lower standard than the rest of society. As people who profess to be the arbiters of morality for their sect, any whiff of hypocrisy and dishonesty undermines their authority.

  • It appears that some commentators above think that I am attempted to defend the Catholic Church’s record regarding child abuse. Absolutely not. I go further and suggest that existing penalties in various jurisdictions are too lenient for those who abuse children. I would likely be considered “draconian” by these same commentators if they knew how I would deal with the criminals.
    As for Google turning up references to any of the mainstream reporting of churches other than the Catholic: Do we find these reports on the three major broadcast news programs? On what page of the NYT do we find its reporting? That paper tends to bury deep within its pages any reports that might distract from the sort of coverage it decides to plant on page one. The Catholic Church gets page one, above the fold. Others merit only an inch or two somewhere in section B or C. Conservative commentators give us examples of this game regularly.

    I know that I struck a raw nerve in mentioning the mainstream media. They are the bible for liberals, just as FNC and popular talk radio are anathema to them.

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