Over the past three months, the Archdiocese of Newark has been at the center of the latest clergy abuse scandal, after local media reported that a troubled diocesan priest, Father Michael Fugee, participated in numerous youth retreats in direct violation of a court agreement that allowed him to return to ministry under restricted conditions that barred him ministering to minors.
In 2003, Father Fugee was convicted of sexual assault of a 14-year-old boy, but that decision was overturned on appeal in 2006 because of a judicial error.
The subsequent court agreement, a “Memorandum of Understanding,” required the Newark Archdiocese to oversee the priest’s compliance with the directive.
Archbishop John Myers of Newark acknowledged that Church administrators learned of the priest’s activities after they were reported in the New Jersey Star Ledger in April, and in the wake of the revelations, Msgr. John Doran, the vicar general of the Newark Archdiocese resigned. So did a pastor and youth minister in a Trenton, N.J., parish where Father Fugee had been invited to minister during youth retreats, without formally requesting permission from the Diocese of Trenton.
Archbishop Myers has acknowledged in a variety of public forums, including a video on the archdiocese’s website, that an independent investigation by a law firm hired by the diocese had concluded that “the strong protocols presently in place were not always observed.”
During a June 20 interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Archbishop Myers explained the context for his decision to allow Father Fugee to remain in restricted ministry, outlined the changes he had made to tighten oversight of the 16-17 priests currently supervised by the diocese because of sexual abuse, and raised questions about whether individual dioceses always could effectively supervise priests who were placed in restricted ministry.
Critics of your decision to allow a restricted role for Father Fugee as co-director of the Newark Archdiocese’s Office of Clergy Formation charge that you violated the U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children’s “zero tolerance” policy for all priests with credible accusations of clergy abuse. According to the public record, Father Fugee admitted to groping a young man, entered a rehabilitation program and underwent counseling for sex offenders. Would you describe the decision-making process that allowed him to return to ministry?
Many of the facts regarding Father Fugee’s case have not been fully reported or have not been presented in a balanced way.
We worked with the prosecutor’s office and our lay review board, and we were professional throughout. The memorandum of understanding worked out with the prosecutor’s office said he could function as a priest, but not with minors in an unsupervised capacity.
The assignments I gave him were intended to increase supervision. He was in the chancery eight hours a day, and he was working with another priest to identify places where priests could participate in retreats. In that role, he had no contact with children.
Would you address the charges against Father Fugee and how his case was decided?
There were two charges against Father Fugee. He was found innocent of one involving endangerment and guilty of the other involving contact.
However, a three-judge appellate court threw out the guilty verdict. The panel of judges determined that the judge’s instructions to the jury lacked guidance on how to deal with whether Father Fugee was acting in a supervisory way with the young man, such as a coach or a teacher. The court said the lack of guidance resulted in the jury’s inability to consider critical elements of the matter.
In addition, a juror reported to the judge that she felt the priest was innocent and that jurors seeking a conviction had apparently misled other jurors about what the judge and attorneys said. The judge did not look into the matter.
Whatever the details of the case and its outcome, Father Fugee acknowledged in his March 19, 2001, statement to the police that he had “grabbed” the privates of the 14-year-old boy while he and the boy were wrestling, fully clothed.
The statement out there is part of a larger period of questioning over some three hours that was not taken down. During that larger period, he denied any wrongdoing several times. When the case went to court, Father Fugee testified that he said what he did in the written statement by mistake at the end of the three hours because he was tired.
The average person is looking for a black-and-white answer, but there are cases where there are more grays than black and white. That is what the court and the review board were dealing with.
A psychiatrist’s evaluation undertaken at the direction of the court after Father Fugee won the appeal concluded that he was not a danger. After the evaluation, the Bergen Country prosecutor said he could go back to ministry.
Our lay review board looked into the allegation as if they were cops looking into the matter. They conducted a series of confidential interviews, read through the documents and had a lot of discussion.
The review board did not give Father Fugee a clean bill of health: He engaged in activity that was ill advised but did not rise to the level of sexual abuse. They said the limitations stated in the memorandum were appropriate safeguards. There would be no unsupervised ministry with minors and youth. He could say Mass when young people were present. He could do baptisms and funerals.
The case went to the review board in late 2006 and was not completed until 2009. We incorporated the terms of the memorandum into a precept. So the directive did not just come from civil authorities; it was also approved under canon law for the diocese.
If he were to go outside the diocese to minister to young people, he still needed permission to do that, and he knew we would have told him, “No.”
Did the memorandum imply direct supervision during every time he was engaged in ministry with minors? If it was a check-in, how often was that scheduled? And is there a record of that supervision?
There is a record of supervision, but he was not supposed to be in ministry with minors.
Father Fugee was placed in a parish with other priests who all knew his situation. If they had any problems or suspicions, I am confident that they would have expressed their concerns.
He was also in another parish with other priests. We have learned that, on a couple of occasions in the last year or so, when they had a last-minute need of a priest to hear confessions for a youth retreat, they asked him to help. The confession services were all out in the open area of the church, and other adults were present. There were activities that he was not permitted to do; unfortunately, the pastor permitted this.
As I said in the May 26 video, I have since transferred the supervisory role for overseeing these priests to the judicial vicar, because there are a good number of canon lawyers familiar with the charter in that office.
At the U.S. bishops’ meeting in San Diego this June, we discussed the fact that supervision is a problem under the charter. What if a priest moves to Florida? How do we supervise them [those who move]? My suggestion is that the bishops work to address these issues soon.
Is Father Fugee the only Newark diocesan priest under such supervision?
Since I was named archbishop of Newark in 2001, I have removed 19 priests from ministry. Five have died; 14 are “chartered” priests whom the Church has determined can no longer be in ministry under the charter’s provisions. They have quarterly personal contact with a minister for priests to make sure they are not functioning as a priest in any way or having contact with young people in any way. If they go on vacation, we still contact them.
Two or three other priests are also out of ministry but have no criminal or canonical actions against them, possibly because people have not come forward. But to make sure young people are safe, they have been taken out of ministry. So about 16 or 17 priests are under supervision.
I have been archbishop of Newark for almost 12 years, and I am not aware of any current case involving prosecution. Everything that has come to us has been decades old, and we have reported that to the appropriate county prosecutors.
Critics have raised questions about the decision to appoint Father Fugee to a post dealing with priestly formation. What is your response?
The assignment to the priestly-formation post did not involve actually conducting seminars or training sessions. It was a desk job, sending out emails to priests informing them of programs currently available to priests. He wasn’t developing curricula or programs himself.
Does Father Fugee still have his priestly faculties? Was his record forwarded to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and is he the subject of any canonical investigation?
Father Fugee is back in the rectory but is no longer able to function as a priest. He is in a charismatic-movement parish with people coming in for Mass and then going back to their own towns. The parish does not have a school, youth group or CCD.
Regarding any further canonical action, our practice has always been that we wait until civil issues are settled. The prosecutor is still investigating this.
The Dallas Charter states that any priest who wants to engage in ministry in another diocese must prove he is in good standing with his bishop, but Bishop David O’Connell of Trenton was not informed about Father Fugee’s presence in his diocese.
All the bishops of New Jersey and the country comply with this practice. Recently, every priest in this diocese received a letter in the mail that restated the need to comply with this process. There is no exception.
We did not know of Father Fugee’s activities in the Trenton Diocese until we learned about them from the media. Had he informed us of his intentions, we would have told him he couldn’t do that work.
New Jersey state legislators have debated legislation to lift the statute of limitations for civil suits dealing with child sexual abuse. Are you concerned that this case will revive that effort?
The statue of limitations is always a concern. There are discussions in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania about this issue. We are working very hard to help people understand that we will back any legislation that will protect children, but if it is retaliatory — seeking simply to punish the Church for actions that it did not condone and wasn’t aware of at the time — then we do not support it.
In hindsight, would you have still approved the decision to allow Father Fugee to return to restricted ministry?
Basically, our decision was appropriate at the time. But what I don’t think we will do again is enter into an agreement with a civil authority that gives the supervisory function to the archdiocese. We would not enter into a memorandum of understanding that places a burden on the Church. The state has more resources. Our advice would be to tell the priest, “Go back for a second trial and clear your name.”