Via Phil Lawler :
Sunday brought the staggering news that in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, a priest who had been convicted of groping a young man has now been appointed as co-director for the archdiocesan office of clergy formation. What could Archbishop John Myers possibly have been thinking? How could he be so utterly insensitive?
To be sure, the conviction of Father Michael Fugee was overturned on appeal. But rather than risk another trial he made a plea agreement with prosecutors and agreed to enter a counseling program for sex offenders. So a sex offender is heading an archdiocesan office. And not just any office, but an office designed to guide other priests in their spiritual formation. Is this not exactly the sort of scandal that the Dallas Charter was supposed to prevent?
An archdiocesan spokesman said that Archbishop Myers has full confidence in Father Fugee, even while emphasizing that the priest is now in a position where he does not have access to children. Does that really bespeak full confidence?
Under the Dallas Charter—the policies the American bishops approved at their June 2002 meeting in Dallas, in a panicked response to public outcry about the burgeoning scandal—a priest who is credibly accused of the sexual abuse of children should be removed from public ministry. Yet here was Father Fugee, who had been not only accused but convicted by a New Jersey jury, serving in an office of the archdiocese. It emerged that he had previously served as a hospital chaplain, with unsupervised access to children, even after the conviction. The archdiocesan review board had cleared him for ministry, as had the archbishop. The case vividly illustrates that the policies put in place by the Dallas Charter provide no reassurance at all to the faithful, if the policy-makers do not prove themselves trustworthy.
There’s more. During Father Fugee’s trial, the jury heard a statement in which the priest said that he was homosexual or bisexual. (An appeals court would later cite concerns about that statement as a reason for overturning the verdict.) So now a priest who is homosexual or bisexual, who is in a sex-offender program, is dispensing advice to other priests in Newark, and potentially dealing with the priests who are coping with similar problems. Is there any reason for confidence that he is offering mature spiritual counsel? Can we assume that he would respond properly to other cases in which priests were accused of misconduct?
The astonishment, bewilderment, and outrage that greeted the news from Newark is completely understandable; the complacent reaction from the archdiocese (“We have not received any complaints from the prosecutor’s office…”) is appalling.
Right now, one of two things is true. Either
- The phone is ringing off the hook in the office of Archbishop Myers, as other bishops all around the country call to ask him what on earth he has done, and demand that he quickly undo it. Or…
- Ten years into the greatest crisis the Church has faced since the Reformation, most American bishops still haven’t begun to grasp the problem.
There is no third option. And as I look at those two possibilities, I shudder to think which is more likely. God help us.
One of the repercussions of priestly sexual abuse is how to handle a sex abuser. That they be suspended and dismissed from the clerical state is certainly required. Although turning them out on the street to possible abuse others has its own problems. There could be some case made for continuing to employ them in the diocese to prevent this, but this is fraught with problems. Employing them to guide other priests in their spiritual formation is incomprehensible. Desk job or not and regardless of how much he is supervised this shows a totally tin-eared approach both as a prudential matter and the obvious scandal it would cause.
The care of even a priest who is an abuser is an important matter and maybe ideally the case would be that they would live out their lives in for example the environment of a monastery. Maybe that is rather naive and that really there is no one solution. Still the solution is certainly not employing them for priestly spiritual formation.