The Archdiocese of Newark affirmed its decision to allow a priest accused of abusing a minor to remain in ministry, stressing that they are complying with authorities and prohibiting any interaction alone with children.
“We have not received any complaints from the prosecutor's office...since Father has been back in ministry,” said Jim Goodness, the archdiocesan communications director.
“We're doing exactly what we're supposed to be doing,” he told CNA on Feb. 5.
On Nov. 21, the Catholic Advocate – the archdiocesan newspaper – announced that Father Michael Fugee had been appointed co-director of the office of Continuing Education and Ongoing Formation of Priests. He had been, and remains, director of the Office of the Propagation of the Faith. Both are positions at the Newark chancery.
On Feb. 3, the Star-Ledger ran a story about the appointment, calling it a “high-profile position.”
Goodness contested that characterization, saying, “it certainly is not a prestigious assignment...Father simply has to send out emails and notices to the priests in the diocese talking about this or that seminar or workshop if they want to take advantage of it, that's it.”
In 2001, Fr. Fugee was charged with criminal sexual contact and endangering a child's welfare.
The priest told police he had twice groped a teenage boy's crotch while they were wrestling in the presence of the boy's family members. One instance took place while he was on vacation with the boy's family in Virginia in 2000, he said, and the other was about a year prior to that.
During his 2003 trial, Fr. Fugee protested that his confession to the police was false and that he had lied. The jury convicted him of aggravated sexual contact.
Fr. Fugee appealed the decision, and in 2006, an appellate court reversed his conviction, saying that the trial court had given inadequate guidance to the jury. Goodness said that “there was no basis for those original verdicts.”
The priest was supposed to go on trial again, but he came to an agreement with the Bergen County Prosecutor and the Archdiocese of Newark's vicar general requiring him to undergo two years of “sex-offender specific counseling/therapy.”
That 2007 agreement allowed Fr. Fugee to remain in ministry so long as “he shall not have any unsupervised contact with or any duties that call for the supervision/ministry of any child or children under the age of 18...as long as he is a priest and/or employed/assigned within the Roman Catholic Church.”
In 2009, after Fr. Fugee completed his sex-offender counseling, the prosecutors dismissed the case against him.
“We have not received any complaints from the prosecutor's office, who gave us the original memorandum since Father has been back in ministry. He does not have unsupervised contact with children or youth, that's very clear,” Goodness said.
“This particular assignment, it’s within the office, so there’s really no exposure at that point,” he explained.
“(W)e are doing exactly what the authorities said we could do,” he stressed. “They made the suggestion that return to ministry could be on a certain basis, and we followed those through.”
He added that the diocese is “extremely puzzled” about the criticism and doesn’t know “what to do any further than what we are doing to comply.”
Goodness pointed out that the Newark archdiocese has cooperated with authorities and that this “isn't a situation in which we have tried to get anything by anybody or slip anything under the rug.”
He said the review board of the archdiocese had reviewed Fr. Fugee's case, and “agreed that Father could...return to ministry under those criteria.”
“Also, it's important to know that the entire case was forwarded to Rome,” he said. “Rome reviewed everything, and said everything was done appropriately, and they were comfortable with Father returning.”
Fr. Fugee, having completed his therapy, is “allowed to say Mass anywhere in the diocese,” Goodness continued.
“He's just not supposed to be in an unsupervised setting with children. But saying Mass on Sunday in a parish, there are a lot of adults around.”
“He's not doing religious education classes, he's not going to schools, he's not involved with...youth ministry or anything like that,” he explained. “But all the other things in a parish setting are entirely possible, because you're there as the entire community, so that there is always the presence of other people.”