Sunday, December 12, 2010

Church's failure
When will the church come clean on abuse?
Published: Sunday, December 12, 2010, 5:55 AM
Tom Moran/ The Star-Ledger
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Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger
Newark Archbishop John J. Myers delivers a Homily at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark last month.

My son, Patrick, was 8 years old and studying for his First Communion at St. Cassian Church in Montclair when I decided to place the call.

I was polite, but I can’t say it was a friendly call. Because, by then, the sexual abuse scandal rocking the Roman Catholic church had spread way beyond Boston. And nearly every time, the story followed the same horrifying pattern.

A child is abused by a priest. The church hierarchy responds by protecting the church, not the children. The priest is transferred, and finds another child to abuse.

As the number of victims piled higher and higher, into the thousands, I decided it was time to call St. Cassian and ask what officials were doing to protect my boy.

The pastor, a kind and gentle person, told me what he no doubt believed to be true: “The Newark Archdiocese would never send someone here who had that kind of problem.”

They need a better answer now. Because during this period, as he was promising reform, Archbishop John Myers shielded at least four priests who were accused of abusing children. The diocese also wrote a letter on behalf of a fifth priest after learning he had been accused of assaulting a woman.

Myers, it turns out, has been playing the same ugly game that other bishops played. He’s been protecting the church, not the children.

The details were spelled out by Jeff Diamant in last Sunday’s Star-Ledger.

The worst case concerns a priest from St. Elizabeth’s Church in Wyckoff, the Rev. Michael Fugee, who confessed to police that he molested a 13-year-old boy. Fugee was never ousted from the priesthood, and the archdiocese assigned him last year as chaplain to St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark without telling hospital officials of his past. Those facts are not in dispute.

Myers had to know there was some risk that Fugee would find another victim in that hospital. St. Michael’s does not have a pediatric ward, but it doesn’t bar children from the premises. By not telling St. Michael’s about Fugee, he knowingly increased that risk.

I wanted to ask Myers why a man of the cloth would leave children exposed to this danger, but he refused to discuss it in person or by phone.

His spokesman, James Goodness, said that Myers doubts the validity of Fugee’s confession, and so he felt no need to inform the hospital or remove him from the priesthood.

Let’s look at the facts. Police say Fugee confessed, admitting to two incidents when he touched the boy’s crotch.

He told them he was a compulsive masturbator, a bisexual, and that he was infatuated with penis size. He later renounced that confession, but it was submitted as evidence and a jury voted to convict him after hearing it.

Fugee’s conviction on aggravated criminal sexual contact was overturned on appeal because the judge made mistakes in his jury directions. The confession was not at issue, and prosecutors have no doubt Fugee was guilty as charged.

So when Myers tries to wriggle out of responsibility by suggesting this confession is meaningless, he sounds like a lawyer trying to protect a client, not a moral leader driven by conviction.

I also would have asked Myers why he doesn’t post the names of priests who have been credibly accused of abuse and removed from their posts. That’s critical, because it blocks priests who try to hide their pasts and work again with children. Some bishops, including Bishop Paul Bootkoski of Metuchen, have made that information public.

I cut my emotional ties to the church long ago, for different reasons. So my anger at Myers feels something like my anger at a dishonest politician who ran as a reformer. I’m used to it.

But for those who look to the church for strength and guidance and comfort, as my mother and father did, this is a form of spiritual robbery. The church hierarchy took something from them, something precious. Yes, the children are the first victims, but they are not the only victims.

I’d like to ask the archbishop about that, too. Because every time the church hierarchy exposes another child to risk, as Myers did, its moral standing takes another blow.

And so in the end, it is not only failing to protect the children — it is failing to protect the church.

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