Newark, N.J., May 1, 2013 / 12:05 am (CNA).- The Archdiocese of Newark asserts that a local publication is inaccurately portraying the continued ministry of a priest who was accused of abusing a minor.
On April 28, New Jersey newspaper The Star-Ledger published a story saying that the Newark archdiocese is allowing Father Michael Fugee, who was accused of sexual abuse of a teenage boy in 2001, to continue working with children.
The archdiocesan communications director, James Goodness, told CNA April 29 that “we have not assigned him to anything that places him in a situation where he is unsupervised with minors or in fact has any ministry with minors.”
Diocesan-approved incidents have always been supervised and in accordance with an agreement with a local prosecutor's office, Goodness said, and other occasions when Fr. Fugee has had supervised contact with minors were done without the archdiocese being involved in the decision-making process.
In 2001, Fr. Fugee told police he had twice groped a teenage boy's crotch while they were wrestling in the presence of the boy's family members. One instance took place while he was on vacation with the boy's family in Virginia in 2000, he said, and the other was about a year prior to that.
He was charged with criminal sexual contact and endangering a child's welfare. A jury convicted him of aggravated sexual contact in 2003, but in 2006 an appellate court reversed the conviction, saying the trial court had given inadequate guidance to the jury. During his trial, he had protested that his confession to the police was false and that he had lied.
The priest came to an agreement with the Bergen County Prosecutor and the Archdiocese of Newark's vicar general requiring him to undergo two years of “sex-offender specific counseling/therapy.”
That 2007 agreement allows Fr. Fugee to remain in ministry so long as “he shall not have any unsupervised contact with or any duties that call for the supervision/ministry of any child or children under the age of 18…as long as he is a priest and/or employed/assigned within the Roman Catholic Church.”
“It is agreed and understood that Michael Fugee shall not accept any position…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,” the agreement adds.
“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 day care.”
According to the Star-Ledger article by Mark Mueller, Fr. Fugee has attended two youth retreats, in 2010 and 2012, and has gone on pilgrimages.
“What we do know is that Fr. Fugee did participate in a couple different retreats over a period of time…but he had been asked to come in at the last minute to hear confessions and say Mass with another priest,” Goodness said.
“And the reason he was called at the last minute, is the priest that the parish had lined up for the schedule had backed out at the last minute, so the organizers of the retreat had called Fr. Fugee, because they're friends, and asked if he could come down and do this for them.”
“So he came down and then came back, he did not stay over.”
The retreats were held by St. Mary's in Colts Neck, which is in the Trenton diocese. Fr. Fugee was called to assist at the retreats by the parish's youth ministers, with whom he is good friends.
He has heard the confessions of minors on these retreats, according to The Star-Ledger. The article included Facebook photos of Fr. Fugee with minors taken on the retreats. Fr. Fugee's Facebook page, accessible April 29, was no longer reachable April 30.
The pilgrimages in which Fr. Fugee has participated are organized by a group Fr. Fugee has been a part of since before he entered seminary.
Goodness said the pilgrimages, to Quebec, include adults and that Fr. Fugee's participation has not been “as an official person. It's just as a participant in the pilgrimage itself, and there were always people around while he was there.”
The communications director added that while Fr. Fugee has contact with minors, it is always with the supervision of other adults and that the archdiocese prohibits his interaction alone with children.
The Newark archdiocese believes “firmly that we have been complying with the terms of the memorandum of understanding with the prosecutor's office,” he said.
Goodness affirmed that the decision-making process to have Fr. Fugee participate in events at St. Mary's was done without the involvement of the Newark chancery.
However, he added that “Fr. Fugee understands very clearly that he cannot be as spontaneous about these things as he may have been. So I don't foresee that we'll be talking about anything like this ever again.”
“We think he is fulfilling his role here within the diocese, and these were extenuating circumstances, they were out of the ordinary. They were not part of what the archdiocese has done in terms of abiding by the agreements. We have abided, we believe.”
The archdiocese has not had any complaints about Fr. Fugee since he was re-instated in ministry, and nor has the Bergen county prosecutor's office made any contact with the archdiocese about the priest.
“We're prepared to discuss everything with them, and meet in a cordial and professional environment,” Goodness said. “If they are interested in learning more, we certainly are prepared and ready to sit down with them to help them understand what our thinking is and why we think we're abiding by the terms, and to get their input as well.”
Mueller's articles characterize Newark archbishop John J. Myers as not fulfilling his responsibility as bishop to protect young people.
“That is clearly not the case,” Goodness said. The archdiocese reports all accusations of sexual abuse directly to local prosecutors.
“We have a very strong review board of individuals who are lay people with law enforcement, investigative, and clinical backgrounds…they take very seriously their obligations.”
After the criminal issues had been dealt with, the review board examined all the facts and determined that sexual abuse had not occurred in Fr. Fugee's case, and that he could be in ministry.
“Not content with that, Archbishop Myers took everything, the court case and the review board materials, and sent them to Rome,” seeking the advice of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with such cases.
“Rome returned with documentation saying we had done everything we should be doing, and that in fact the review and their conclusions were correct,” Goodness said.
“So this archbishop does very clearly value and understand the importance of working with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on allegations of sexual abuse.”