Newark, N.J., May 30, 2013 / 12:02 am (CNA).- Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark has reaffirmed the archdiocese’s commitment to protecting children following the resignation of a priest who violated a legal agreement to avoid minors.
“We are not perfect. But people who suggest we have not taken seriously the oversight of our clergy and do not put the security and safety of our families and parishioners, especially our children, at the forefront of our ministry are just plain wrong,” Archbishop Myers said.
“This is among the most sacred responsibilities that I share with the other honorable, dedicated clergy within our archdiocese,” he wrote in a May 24 column for the New Jersey Star-Ledger.
The archbishop said the archdiocese must identify any flaws in its abuse protocols “and fix them.” He pledged a “thoughtful and effective response,” including the appointment of a new vicar general and a review and strengthening of the archdiocese's internal protocols to safeguard children.
His comments come in response to the case of Father Michael Fugee, who in 2001 admitted to police that he groped a teenage boy’s crotch while wrestling in the presence of the boy’s family members. He was convicted of aggravated sexual contact in 2003 but the conviction was reversed on appeal in 2006 on the grounds the jury was not instructed properly.
A 2007 agreement between the priest, prosecutors and the Archdiocese of Newark’s vicar general allowed the priest to remain in ministry provided he was not around children unsupervised and did not engage in youth ministry or hear their confessions.
However, in April 2013 evidence became public showing that the priest has since attended youth retreats and pilgrimages and heard confessions from minors, though without the knowledge of the Archdiocese of Newark’s chancery.
On May 2, Fr. Fugee submitted his resignation to Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, who accepted it the same day. The priest was arrested May 20 for violating his agreement. He could face up to 18 months in prison.
Fr. Fugee was serving as director of the archdiocese’s Office of the Propagation of the Faith. In November 2012 he was appointed co-director of the archdiocese’s Office of Continuing Education and Ongoing Formation of Priests.
The archdiocese had defended his appointment in February 2013, saying it had not received any complaints from the prosecutor’s office since the priest’s return from active ministry.
Archbishop Myers said May 24 that when he first learned of Fr. Fugee’s alleged violations of the legal agreement, he ordered an outside law firm to conduct a “full and thorough” investigation.
“I said I not only wanted to know if there was any wrongdoing, but that if there was wrongdoing and it rose to the point that authorities should be notified, I wanted them notified as well,” the archbishop said.
He said the investigation found “certain operational vulnerabilities” in the archdiocese and that the “strong protocols” in place “were not always observed.”
Archbishop Myers said that the resignation of archdiocese’s vicar general, Monsignor John E. Doran, will allow for more effective changes. He announced that monitoring functions will be transferred to the archdiocese’s judicial vicar.
The archbishop said the archdiocese has “an exemplary record” in addressing abuse allegation against its clergy.
“During my tenure I have personally removed 19 priests for substantiated allegations,” he said.
He pointed to abuse prevention programs in the diocese and safety training for Catholic school students. He said priests and deacons have been reminded that they need written permission to minister in other dioceses.
“All of these measures are geared toward safeguarding the members of our parishes and community. You can be sure we will continue to expand our efforts,” he said.