THE BLOG
05/09/2013 10:17 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2013

To Understand the Catholic Hierarchy's Troubles, Look to Newark's Scandal

RNS

Often lost in the shadow of the Archdiocese of New York, and its larger-than-life cardinal, Timothy Dolan, the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., is attracting national attention these days for all the wrong reasons. It is now the site of one of the more pathetic episodes in official Catholicism's sex abuse scandal, a case so badly mishandled that it reveals, by example, why the hierarchy can't seem to ends its long running crisis.

As reported by the state's largest newspaper, the Star-Ledger of Newark, the case began with a 13-year-old boy's complaint that he had been sexually abused by the Rev. Michael Fugee in 2001. Father Fugee confessed, then recanted, and was subsequently convicted of aggravated criminal sexual contact. This verdict was overturned in 2007 by an appellate court that found the jury had not been properly instructed by the trial judge. To avoid a retrial, Fugee and archdiocese officials signed an agreement with prosecutors that required he never again minister "to any minor/child under the age of 18 or work in any position in which children are involved."

The world may have never again heard the name Michael Fugee if his superiors hadn't allowed him to return to ministry where he regularly worked with minors. He heard their confessions and traveled overnight with groups of children and youth ministers from a parish in the town of Colts Neck, which is actually in the neighboring diocese of Trenton. A priest friend also invited him to work at a parish within the archdiocese of Newark where, according to reports, he also violated the terms of his agreement with prosecutors by acting as a priest with children.

What is remarkable about the Fugee case is not the fact of a man violating the terms of an agreement with criminal authorities, although this is egregious. More troubling is the lack of supervision by Fugee's archbishop John J. Myers and the church's official reaction to the Star-Ledger's reporting. At first church authorities challenged the accuracy of the reports. Then they claimed Fugee had actually been closely supervised. Both positions have seen been reversed.

Archbishop Myer's credibility is weakened by his prior record. In 2009 he assigned Fugee to work as a hospital chaplain, where he could access children. Fugee was fired when hospital officials learned of his record. Myers then named Fugee co-director of an office responsible for training priests. This hardly seems appropriate, given his own difficulties as a priest.

In the wake of the scandal, Father Fugee has resigned and so have a priest and two youth ministers at the Colts Neck parish. A conflict now seems to be brewing between bishops in Trenton and Newark. Criminal authorities are looking into the case. Local editorial writers and politicians are calling for Myers to resign. Advocates for victims of priest abusers, including a prominent Catholic priest named James Connell, have asked the Vatican to investigate. New Jersey's Catholic community is in turmoil.

Anyone who wonders why Catholic officials have had trouble putting to rest the clerical sex abuse scandal that began in 1985, need only consider this current case. John Myers has been a bishop since 1987, nearly the entire length of the scandal, and still he cannot recognize a problem priest and deal with him effectively.