USCCB Reports Decline in Abuse Allegations

But Arrest of Newark Priest Ordered to Avoid Contact With Youth Generates Renewed Concern

NEWARK, N.J. — As the U.S. bishops marked the release of an annual report with "the fewest allegations and victims reported since the data collection for the annual reports began in 2004," the May 20 arrest of a Newark, N.J., priest triggered headlines that fueled skepticism and frustration regarding the Church’s decade-long effort to protect children.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued the findings of the 2012 audit of diocesan compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People on May 9, as Newark’s The Star-Ledger published a series of articles on Father Michael Fugee. Father Fugee, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, resigned from ministry on May 2 and was arrested on May 20, charged with seven counts of contempt of a judicial order.

Father Fugee was accused of violating a 2007 judicial mandate to avoid any unsupervised contact with children, minister to children or hold any position in which children are involved. The judge’s order followed an appeal and request for retrial after the priest’s 2003 conviction for groping a teenage boy, a transgression he acknowledged.

According to the agreement, Father Fugee would be supervised by the archdiocese; however, a spokesman for Archbishop John Myers of Newark told reporters he had been unaware of the priest’s activities related to youth.

Critics subsequently questioned the archdiocese’s decision to allow Father Fugee to remain in ministry. "Bishops have autonomy, but everyone is subject to the law of the Church. According to the [charter] norms, if a child has been abused, and that has been substantiated through an investigation or an admission on the part of a priest, then that priest must be removed," Father John Bambrick, pastor of St. Aloysius Parish in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J., and a former abuse victim who has advocated for victims and Church reforms in a variety of forums, told the Register.

In the wake of Father Fugee’s arrest, the Archdiocese of Newark has scrambled to establish all the facts of the case — described by the archdiocese’s spokesman, James Goodness, as a "fluid" situation.

However, Goodness challenged news reports that he said presented the priest as "a convicted pedophile."

"There were two charges against him originally in 2001. He was acquitted of the first charge and found guilty of the second," stated Goodness in an email.

Yet a panel of judges overturned that ruling on appeal, and the matter was dismissed after "Fugee agreed to the terms of the ‘Memorandum of Understanding,’" wrote Goodness.

He noted that both the prosecutor and the archdiocesan review board had signed off on the decision to allow the priest to return to restricted ministry, which included assignments to administrative positions located at the Archdiocese of Newark.

However, as The Star-Ledger reported, Father Fugee’s activities were not limited to Newark, and it was learned that he participated in various youth-oriented programs in other New Jersey dioceses.

In early May, well before the priest’s arrest, the Diocese of Trenton announced that the priest "had been given no permission to exercise ministry there by the diocese, nor had he filed with the chancery the ‘letter of suitability’ required of all priests outside of the diocese before they are to conduct a ministry." 

Trenton Bishop David O’Connell promptly accepted the resignations of a pastor and youth minister from the Trenton parish where Father Fugee had temporarily joined the parish team for a youth retreat.


Results of 2012 Audit

Father Fugee’s case also highlighted the limitations of the mandated compliance audit, a self-reported process that has spurred diocesan efforts to implement the charter’s provisions but has not always exposed potential violations.

The 2012 audit confirmed just six credible allegations of abuse. However, the audit also reported that 15 other allegations remained under investigation.

"StoneBridge Business Partners, which conducts the audits, said law enforcement found six credible cases among 34 allegations of abuse of minors in 2012 itself," noted a USCCB press release.

"Credibility of 15 of the allegations was still under investigation. Law enforcement found 12 allegations to be unfounded or unable to be proven and one a boundary violation."

When the report was released on May 9, the document’s authors noted that several dioceses were not in full compliance with the charter, but the Newark Archdiocese was not among that small group.

Days later, Father Fugee was arrested, and Archbishop Myers is now under fire for allowing the accused priest to remain in ministry.

A more serious example of the inherent limitations of a self-reported audit occurred in 2011, when the Philadelphia Archdiocese was found to be in compliance with the charter — until an explosive 2011 grand jury report led then-Cardinal Justin Rigali to suspend more than 20 priests from ministry. His successor, Archbishop Charles Chaput, has permanently removed some priests from ministry and cleared others, with some cases of suspended priests still outstanding.


Learning From the Past

The situation in Philadelphia as well as in Kansas City, Mo., which also made headlines over the course of the last year, have inspired local and national efforts to learn from the past and, when appropriate, address weaknesses in the reporting system.

"Yes, these things tend to make national press, and when they do, the stigma very often unfairly attaches to the entire Church," Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., told the Register.

In 2012, Bishop Finn was found guilty of failing to report disturbing photographs produced by a priest in his diocese who had been removed from ministry but still had access to children. The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has since overhauled its response to abuse allegations and boundary violations.

The findings in the 2012 audit have been bolstered by the request for additional documents confirming that dioceses have followed both the "letter and the spirit of the Dallas Charter," Al Notzon, III, chairman of the National Review Board, told the Register.

"The fact that the numbers — both historic and contemporary — have declined was positive," said Notzon, during a May 14 interview that noted the latest headlines from Newark.

"Clearly, these are exceptions, and we need to ask: What can we learn from this?"

The "enhanced-compliance audit," for example, not only asks if a diocese has established a lay review board, composed of experts in the field of law enforcement and victim assistance, but how often the board meets to review allegations. That question hones in on a problem associated with some scandals, where chancery officials bypassed the lay review board and handled allegations without expert advice.

Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection, said his office would continue to promote practices that protect children and restore the moral credibility of Church-affiliated institutions.

"We have been at this since 2002, and we continue to learn from mistakes," Deacon Nojadera said. "The audit has been a wonderful tool to help us grow and continue to improve. It gives us the impetus to strive for better, cohesive and coherent policies."