(RNS) The New Jersey priest charged earlier this year with violating a lifetime ban on ministry to children will not face criminal prosecution, but his freedom comes at the expense of his occupation.
The Rev. Michael Fugee, 52, will petition the Vatican for his permanent removal from the priesthood, one of dozens of conditions he must abide by for life under a court-approved agreement with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. Among the restrictions, Fugee is forever barred from unsupervised contact with minors.
In announcing the consent order Friday, Prosecutor John L. Molinelli sharply rebuked Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, saying it was clear neither Myers nor his deputies made any significant effort to monitor Fugee as required under a previous memorandum of understanding.
Fugee signed the 2007 agreement to avoid retrial on charges he groped a teenage boy on multiple occasions.
The prosecutor said he no longer had confidence in Myers and felt compelled to shift the supervision of Fugee from the archdiocese to the prosecutor’s office.
“If something like this were to ever happen again, I have no intention of relying on the archdiocese to monitor these priests,” Molinelli said in an interview. “It was clear to us that future monitoring was just not going to happen.”
In a four-page response, the archdiocese’s spokesman, Jim Goodness, called Molinelli’s criticism of Myers “unfairly excessive.”
Under terms of the new consent order, the prosecutor’s office dropped seven counts of criminal contempt of a judicial order. Had he been convicted, Fugee could have faced up to 18 months in prison.
The investigation began in April after The Star-Ledger disclosed Fugee had been violating the 2007 ban on ministry to children. He attended youth retreats through St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck, traveled to Canada with minors and regularly heard confessions from teens. Photos of the encounters were posted on Facebook.
He likewise attended youth events at Holy Family Church in Nutley, where he is good friends with the pastor, the Rev. Msgr. Paul Bochicchio.
The archdiocese initially defended Fugee’s actions, saying they were within the scope of the 2007 memorandum because he was supervised when he was with children. In the days afterward, amid a torrent of criticism and calls for Myers’ resignation from across the country, the archdiocese reversed itself, saying that while Fugee clearly violated the agreement, he did so without the permission or knowledge of the archbishop.
The disclosures have led to the removal of the pastor in Colts Neck and the firing of the church’s youth ministers. In late May, Myers sacked his second-in-command, the Rev. Msgr. John Doran, who had signed the 2007 memorandum on the archdiocese’s behalf.
Despite the failed supervision, Molinelli said he did not seek the indictment of the archdiocese or Myers.
“At no time did we look upon this matter in any direction other than Fugee,” Molinelli said. “We take the facts as they come out. Fugee was the target.”
That the archdiocese received only criticism from the prosecutor came as a disappointment to Mark Crawford, the New Jersey director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an advocacy and support group.
“I feel a tremendous letdown,” Crawford said. “They had an opportunity to send a message, and the prosecutor failed to do that. Once again, there are no serious consequences for those who put children in harm’s way. There needs to be accountability.”
Molinelli countered that while the agreement spares Fugee jail time, it does more in terms of restrictions and supervision than prosecutors could have hoped to gain through a criminal conviction.
Chief among the conditions is Fugee’s removal from the priesthood, a process known as laicization.
“Many of these restrictions — but more importantly laicization — we could have never gotten for a conviction of a fourth-degree crime,” Molinelli said. “Sometimes you have to look beyond a conviction and do things in the interest of people’s safety. That’s why I personally signed the order. I’m accountable.”
Beyond a ban on unsupervised contact with children, Fugee may not become a teacher, coach or counselor or even describe himself as a “man of God.”
He must provide the prosecutor’s office with the names and phone numbers of any employers, and he is required to show those employers a copy of the consent order. He’s also barred from seeking to become a member of the clergy in any faith and from holding a supervisory role in a church or other religious institution as a lay person.
The same restrictions apply to charity or volunteer work, according to the order.
The full list of restrictions in the consent order can be found here.
Goodness, the archdiocese’s spokesman, said Myers had already publicly acknowledged “operational failures” in the Fugee case and that the prosecutor’s office bears some responsibility as well.
“It is hypocritical to single out the archdiocese as being solely responsible. Responsibility lies with numerous parties, including the BCPO,” Goodness said. “It was not the archdiocese that sought to have the criminal charges against Fugee dismissed; it was the BCPO.”
He added Myers “has stated categorically that the primary responsibilities of the archdiocese are to protect children and young people, and to promote the healing of, and provide compassion to, victims of abuse.”
Fugee’s troubles stretch back to 2001, when he admitted under police questioning that he touched the boy, that it sexually excited him and that he recognized it was a “violation.” Two years later, a jury convicted him of criminal sexual contact, and he was sentenced to five years’ probation.
The conviction was later reversed by an appellate court, which ruled the trial judge gave improper instructions to jurors. The 2007 memorandum of understanding required him to undergo counseling for sex offenders and to stay away from children.
Fugee and his defenders in the church — most notably Myers — have repeatedly suggested the confession was coerced by police.
But in the consent order, Fugee acknowledges for the first time the confession was “freely and truthfully given.”
Molinelli called the archbishop’s statements about the confession “very troubling,” noting the admission was determined to be valid and unforced by both a judge and the jury that convicted Fugee.
“We need to be able to rely on our archdiocese to acknowledge that the judicial process should be respected, and if a judge finds a confession is not the subject of coercion, then deference should be given to the court’s ruling,” the prosecutor said.
(Mark Mueller writes for The Star-Ledger.)
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