Judging Priests Guided by Veteran Clergy, Process in Place for Weighing Sex Abuse Allegations
"Faith Matters" Column

Rev. Alexander Santora
Jersey Journal
April 10, 2003

Headlines about priests and sexual abuse, thankfully, have diminished after a watershed 2002 year. Now, the hard work of implementing norms for the priests who have been accused goes on in dioceses all over the country. A Hudson County pastor and a Jersey City native are two priests appointed by Archbishop John Myers to key roles in investigating and adjudicating matters involving priests accused in the Archdiocese of Newark.

While priests are generally pleased that the process is in place and moving along, some are still upset that priests who have been removed from active ministry are still waiting - over a year for some - for closure and their futures to be determined.

Admitting that it's a "learning process," the Very Rev. Kenneth Herbster, dean of the Hoboken Catholic clergy and pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church there, has heard from two church or canon lawyers who are representing some priests and they are happy with their contacts with archdiocesan officials.

One of the priests he's probably referring to is the Rev. Robert Emery, a canon lawyer and the pastor of St. Lawrence Church in Weehawken, the new vice chancellor of the Newark Archdiocese whose sole work is to coordinate the Archdiocesan Review Board. These 15 mostly laypeople, whose identities are not made public and come from backgrounds in mental health, criminal justice and law, are entrusted to investigate accusations against priests and church personnel and recommend a course of action to the archbishop.

When an accusation comes in to the archdiocese, it is reported to the appropriate county prosecutor and, if it involves a minor, to the state Division of Youth and Family Services. It is also forwarded to the vicar general, the archdiocese's No. 2 official, who investigates if the facts jibe with the priest's assignments and particulars of the charge. If deemed credible and involving a minor, the priest or church employee is asked to voluntarily take a leave from a position pending a review board determination. A subcommittee of the board investigates and can recommend that the priest be placed on limited ministry, the priest be removed from ministry or that the charge be dismissed. The archbishop decides a course of action and the Vatican requires that this decision be sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"Rome wants to make sure the priest has his day in court," said the Rev. Robert McBride, the promoter of justice for the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese. This means he will represent the church in a trial and the accused will also have a church lawyer. The CDF will determine if the priest should have a formal trial.

McBride, a Jersey City native who is the pastor of St. Philip's Church in Saddle Brook, took this post last fall. He has held a licentiate in canon law since 1986 and has worked in the church tribunal as a judge in marriage annulment cases. But he noted there has never been any other kind of trial in this local church court.

For a week in March, the Vatican sent a representative to Washington, D.C., to meet and instruct mostly canon lawyers about the process to be used for adjudicating priests and church personnel.

Participating were McBride; Emery; Monsignor Frank Del Prete, the judicial vicar or head of the tribunal who is also pastor of Ss. Peter & Paul in Hoboken; and Myers, who serves on the bishops' committee that crafted "The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young and the Revised Norms."

"Throughout the past year and a half, the Archdiocese has been building on our previous work and success in confronting sexual abuse of minors," Myers said, expressing confidence in McBride and Emery.

Yet, some priests, like Monsignor Donald Guenther, pastor of Immaculate Conception in Secaucus, stated "the process is just too long. Some priests are still in limbo."

"You're like a leper," said Guenther, the chair of the Vocations Board in the Archdiocese.

He speaks for priests who believe that the zero-tolerance policy of the bishops is too strict because an accusation can ruin a priest's reputation and ministry.

The vicar for clergy, Monsignor James Finnerty, who once served as pastor of St. Mary's in Downtown Jersey City, has asked for priest volunteers to serve as support for those priests on leave.

Emery believes that the process is fair and acknowledged that one case has already been sent to Rome and there is no indication how long Rome will take to decide.

The Archdiocese will not release numbers of priests on leave, but it is believed there are currently six.

"The Archdiocese has a serious responsibility to respond to the rights of all involved and emotional, spiritual and financial needs," Emery said, noting that the Archdiocese will pay the fee of the canon lawyer to represent any priest facing an accusation or trial.

Emery, who also holds a master's degree in counseling from Kean University, wrote his 1994 thesis in canon law at Catholic University on "Clerical Sexual Abuse with Minors: the Responsibilities of the Diocesan Bishop and the Canonical Rights of the Abused."

Reflecting on all that has happened in the church in the past 16 months, Rose Nestor, a mother of five and grandmother of 14, believes that this crisis will bring about a cleansing period for the whole church.

While the Jersey City resident said she might think differently if any of her family were involved, she nonetheless said, "we can't stand in judgment of the priesthood in general."

But the tough task of judging accused priests continues and the church must reassure the faithful and society that sexual abuse of minors will not be tolerated.

Santora is a theology instructor at St. Peter's College and Catholic chaplain at Kean University, Union.


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