May 22, 2013

Frogmarching Father Fugee

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Father Michael Fugee, previously discussed here, has been arrested. The priest, who confessed to molesting an adolescent boy on multiple occasions, has been operating in violation of legal agreement not to participate in any kind of youth ministry.

Jim Goodness, Newark director of communications, said the prosecutor’s office had been in contact with the archdiocese and cooperating with the investigation, which re-opened in late April after news reports revealed Fugee had been seen ministering to children on youth retreats and trips and had heard their confessions.

. . .

Though the archdiocese has stated in press releases Fugee was under continual supervision in his assignment, Goodness would not discuss how he was supervised or who was responsible for overseeing it. Instead, he referred to it as a personnel matter and part of ongoing conversations with the prosecutor’s office.

Not only was the Newark archdiocese not ensuring Fugee's compliance with the memorandum, there have been several instances in which they've denied his guilt and insisted that he was exonerated, which he was not.

Goodness defended their recommendation that Fugee could return to ministry under the conditions outlined by the memorandum, saying that they “looked at the matter completely,” including a review of court documents as well as its own interviews and other confidential information. He also referred multiple times to an apparent in-trial recantation by Fugee of his earlier confession, and suggested that “in a retrial, it is very likely that that original statement would not have been upheld.”

Like other statements they've made, they appear to be giving lip service to this legally binding agreement, and then ignoring it based on their own interpretation of the legal case against Fugee. Their internal review process lacks transparency and their public statements are contradictory. They can think what they like about Fugee's chances had the case gone back to court, but they can't just ignore the agreement that settled the matter. The end result is what matters and the end result is that Fugee violated the agreement, dragged other dioceses, apparently unknowingly, into that violation which forced several resignations in addition to his own.

The Archdiocese of Newark, though, has not only ignored the law, they may also have run afoul of Dallas Charter, which has even stricter rules regarding sex offenders than the NJ courts could impose on the Church.

“The charter says any priest, any cleric who has admitted or been convicted or found to have committed the offense … should have been removed from active ministry as soon as the charter was effective,” said Michael Merz, a federal judge in southern Ohio and chair of the national board from 2007-2009.

So the question still, for me, is who will hold the bishops accountable? Fugee should not have been working as a priest in any capacity, with or without access to children. And yet, the archdiocese put him in a high post overseeing education.

One group that wants to see Archbishop Myers called to account is a new group of Catholic Whistleblowers. This group of 12 Church insiders -- priests and nuns -- have taken it upon themselves to press for enforcement from within. Three are canon lawyers who have worked abuse cases and four are sex abuse survivors.

Several of the whistle-blowers have been vocal about that priest, the Rev. Michael Fugee. Along with some New Jersey politicians, they have called for the resignation of the archbishop of Newark, John J. Myers. They fault Archbishop Myers not only for failing to restrict Father Fugee, but also for appointing him to help direct the education of priests in the archdiocese. 

They also question the optimistic findings of the audits mandated by the Dallas Charter, like this one. Such audits, they say, rely on self-reporting and don't adequately represent ongoing problems in dioceses across America.

The Catholic Church in the United States put in place a zero-tolerance policy and a host of prevention programs after the abuse scandal peaked in 2002. Each year the bishops commission an audit of abuse cases, and this year’s survey, released May 9, found the fewest allegations and victims since the audits began in 2004.

. . .

The Newark case, as well as the release of personnel records on priests by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and convictions of church officials in Philadelphia and Kansas City, convinced the whistle-blowers’ group that they have work to do despite the optimistic picture in the bishops’ audits. They do not consider the bishops’ audits credible because they are based on self-reporting.

One hopes that someone can get bishops like Archbishop Myers to take this problem more seriously. Until then, we'll have to be satisfied with the fresh prosecution of Father Fugee.

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