Paterson Diocese Finds Abuse Charges Credible

By John Chadwick [New Jersey]
January 9, 2003

The Diocese of Paterson has concluded that the accusations of sexual abuse lodged against four of its priests are "credible'' and should be referred to Rome for further investigation and a possible church trial.

The decision, made public Wednesday, reflects the new and difficult realities for the Catholic Church as it struggles to ease a national scandal. The Paterson Diocese and others nationwide are now forced to follow new and complicated procedures for weighing accusations of child abuse against their own priests.

The decision also reflects a new reality for the accused. The four priests - two of whom worked in Clifton years ago, and one in Pequannock - enjoyed long and unblemished careers until recently. They are now among the first in North Jersey, and possibly the nation, to face a process that could end their careers.

For now, the priests remain on administrative leave until their cases are decided. The priests are Monsignor John H. Dericks, 87; the Rev. Ralph H. Sodano, 61; the Rev. James A.D. Smith, 72; and the Rev. Allen F. Stepien, 66.

The accusations go back as far as the early Sixties. But they did not come to light until last year, when the escalating scandal emboldened the accusers to come forward.For months, a board made up of clergy and lay people has reviewed the cases behind closed doors at the Paterson Diocesan Center in Clifton, giving the accusers and the priests the opportunity to appear at meetings and state their cases.

The board concluded that the cases should advance to the next step, which involves turning over the accusations to a diocesan official - the promoter of justice - who conducts further investigation and notifies the Vatican.

"The review board found these allegations to be adequately credible and have referred the matter for further investigation and process,'' said Marianna Thompson, spokeswoman for Bishop Frank Rodimer.

The process, approved at a recent conference of bishops in Washington, could end with the priests being removed from public ministry or from the priesthood.

The priests were most recently assigned to Morris County parishes. But Sodano was a priest at St. Brendan's in Clifton; Stepien served at St. Philip the Apostle in Clifton, and Dericks served as pastor at Holy Spirit in the eastern Morris town of Pequannock.

The priests, who have been moved from their rectories and housed at undisclosed locations, could not be reached for comment.

J. Michael Ritty, a canon lawyer representing Stepien, Sodano, and Dericks, said the process is just beginning and little evidence has been introduced.

"There has not been a full evaluation of all witnesses that might be available from either side,'' Ritty said.

A parishioner at Stepien's church in Washington Township said he was disappointed by the board's decision. Mitchell Krukar said he and many others at St. Mark the Evangelist believe Stepien is innocent, and they are frustrated and baffled by the process. Stepien was placed on leave last April.

"You walk into Mass hoping the guy up on the altar is going to be Father Al, and it's not,'' Krukar said. "People are discouraged by the process, the lack of progress, and now this.''

Diocesan officials stressed that the decision does not amount to a guilty finding, and said the priests will have ample opportunity to defend themselves as the process unfolds.

Still, the decision suggests the board strongly believes something may have happened. In November, the board dismissed allegations against another priest, and returned him to his parish.

Eventually, the cases will go to the Vatican, where officials must decide whether to waive a church-imposed statute of limitations. The statute requires that the accuser report the allegations by the time he or she turns 28.

If the statute is waived, the case would go to trial before a tribunal of priests, either in the Vatican or at the diocese.

Victim advocates say it remains to be seen whether the procedure will work. "Somewhere in this long, cumbersome, and confusing process, this decision could be overturned,'' said David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivor's Network of Those Abused by Priests.

"The priests have the right to appeal all the way to the Vatican. So it's crucial people need not breathe a sigh of relief and say, 'We are done.'"

Because the cases are so old, law enforcement authorities can't bring charges and have declined to launch their own investigation.

Since July, the review board has conducted their own evaluations of the cases. The board includes the second ranking official in the diocese - the Rev. Herbert K. Tillyer - as well as the chancellor — the Rev. John E. Hart — and a priest who works outside the diocese as a psychologist.

The other members include a substance abuse counselor, a school administrator, a former captain in the Morris County Prosecutor's Office, a therapist, a victim of clerical abuse, and a nun.

The board has met monthly, reviewing the cases and listening to the accusers and priests who choose to appear. The board does not conduct interviews or cross-examine witnesses. Members don't take notes or record the meetings.

"We don't want it to be an intimidating atmosphere,'' said Ken Mullaney, a lawyer for the diocese. "We didn't want them to feel victimized all over again.''

Still, the Rev. Hart said the board is made up of talented, observant people who can ferret out the truth.

"The board is certainly capable of making an intelligent decision about whether there is something to an accusation or not,'' he said.


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