Another bishop fails to put children first in dealing with abusive priest

By Nicholas Cafardi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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It is difficult to understand what is going on in the Archdiocese of Newark these days. A priest of that archdiocese, Father Michael Fugee, was charged with sexual assault on a minor in 2001. He confessed to the police that he had grabbed the young boy’s crotch while wrestling with him on two occasions. At his first trial, he was convicted of aggravated criminal sexual contact. That conviction was overturned by an appeals court on the grounds of improper jury instructions. Rather than retry Father Fugee, in 2007, the public prosecutor entered into an agreement with him and the Newark archdiocese which says, among other things, that:

"It is agreed and understood that Michael Fugee shall not accept any position with the Archdiocese of Newark or any Archdiocese under which he is assigned and/or placed that allows him to have any unsupervised contact with or to supervise or minister to any child/minor under the age of 18 or work in any position in which children are involved. This includes but is not limited to, presiding over a parish, involvement with a youth group, religious education/parochial school, CCD, confessions of children, youth choir, youth retreats and daycare."

Imagine, then, the surprise of the folks in the Newark archdiocese when they found out that Father Fugee had been going on youth retreats and pilgrimages and was back to hearing the confessions of minors, in private, as all confessions must be.

That sure sounds like a violation of what the archdiocese and Father Fugee agreed to in 2007. The archbishop of Newark does not see it that way. He has written a letter to the faithful claiming that Father Fugee is back in ministry under the terms of the Dallas Charter which requires diocese to restore the reputation of priests in situations where there is a "not guilty" verdict or a dismissal of charges and the diocese’s own review board has found that no sexual abuse has occurred.

If the archdiocesan review board read the same confession statement that I read, I am not sure how they concluded that no abuse occurred, since Father Fugee admitted to it. And for the archbishop to imply that there was an acquittal here--i.e, a finding of not guilty after a trial--that is clearly not what happened in this case. But let’s give the archbishop the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he has complied with the Dallas Charter and Norms in returning Father Fugee to ministry with contact with children.

There still remains that agreement with the public prosecutor, which clearly says that Father Fugee will not go on youth retreats and will not hear youth’s confessions. The archdiocese’s explanation, as I understand it, is that Father Fugee is not doing these things “unsupervised.”

First of all, I am not sure how anyone “supervises” a confession, since by its nature, it must occur in private, but the word “unsupervised” in the agreement does not apply to the whole paragraph quoted above. That paragraph goes on to say that he will not “work in any position in which children are involved. This includes but is not limited to, presiding over a parish, involvement with a youth group, religious education/parochial school, CCD, confessions of children, youth choir, youth retreats and daycare.” I don’t see the word “unsupervised” in those phrases. They clearly prohibit all such contact by Father Fugee, supervised or not. Think about it: how could the archdiocese agree to “supervised” youth confessions, which is the reading it now is trying to give to those words?

The agreement with the prosecutor exists outside the world of the Dallas Charter. The archdiocese could be keeping all of the Charter’s terms and that would say nothing about whether or not it is in compliance with the promises it made to the prosecutor regarding Father Fugee. Those promises, made to the public prosecutor, who represents us, the public, were promises made to us all. And they appear not to be being kept.

On matters such as these, our bishops cannot dance on pinheads. Dallas Charter aside, prosecutorial agreements aside, we need to know that our children are safe when they are in our churches, when they are at parish activities. Men who have shown a propensity for sexual aggression against children do not belong in ministry. Period. End of story. No exceptions.

Update: Following the writing of this post, New Jersey's Star-Ledger reported that Father Michael Fugee has resigned from ministry.