Newark Star Ledger
April 28, 2013 at 4:15 PM, updated April 29, 2013 at 6:32 AM
Six years ago, to avoid retrial on charges that he groped a teenage boy, the Rev. Michael Fugee entered a rehabilitation program, underwent counseling for sex offenders and signed a binding agreement that would dictate the remainder of his life as a Roman Catholic priest.
Fugee would not work in any position involving children, the agreement with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office states. He would have no affiliation with youth groups. He would not attend youth retreats. He would not hear the confessions of minors.
But Fugee has openly done all of those things for the past several years through an unofficial association with a Monmouth County church, St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck, The Star-Ledger found.
He has attended weekend youth retreats in Marlboro and on the shores of Lake Hopatcong in Mount Arlington, parishioners say. Fugee also has traveled with members of the St. Mary’s youth group on an annual pilgrimage to Canada. At all three locations, he has heard confessions from minors behind closed doors.
What’s more, he has done so with the approval of New Jersey’s highest-ranking Catholic official, Newark Archbishop John J. Myers.
Advocates for victims of sexual abuse uniformly denounced Fugee and Myers, calling the priest’s involvement with children a blatant violation of both the agreement with law enforcement and the landmark Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted at a Dallas meeting of the nation’s bishops in 2002 after the eruption of the clergy sex abuse crisis.
"This shows a terrible lack of responsibility on the part of the archbishop," said Theresa Padovano, the New Jersey coordinator for Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group. "You just want to throw your hands up. What are they thinking?"
In a rare breach of unity, two of Myers’ fellow bishops appeared to distance themselves from his stance, saying through aides that Fugee’s attendance at youth retreats in their dioceses was without their knowledge or permission.
The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, unaware of Fugee’s interaction with the youth group until contacted by The Star-Ledger, immediately launched an investigation and appealed to anyone with information to come forward.
Fugee, 52, could face civil penalties, criminal charges or both if he is found to have violated the agreement, said Assistant Prosecutor Demetra Maurice, assistant chief of the special victims unit.
It was not immediately clear whether Myers individually or the archdiocese in general could face consequences.
In addition to Fugee and Prosecutor John Molinelli, the archdiocese’s vicar general signed the agreement on behalf of Myers, pledging to abide by the restrictions on Fugee’s ministry.
The document — which can be found on NJ.com, the online home of The Star-Ledger — states explicitly that Fugee may not have unsupervised contact with children, minister to children or work in any position in which children are involved.
"This includes, but is not limited to, presiding over a parish, involvement with a youth group, religious education/parochial school, CCD (or Sunday school), confessions of children, youth choir, youth retreats and day care," the agreement says.
Myers’ spokesman, Jim Goodness, said the archbishop and Fugee were unavailable for comment.
But Goodness denied the agreement had been breached, saying the archdiocese has interpreted the document to mean Fugee could work with minors as long as he is under the supervision of priests or lay ministers who have knowledge of his past and of the conditions in the agreement.
"We believe that the archdiocese and Father Fugee have adhered to the stipulations in all of his activities, and will continue to do so," Goodness said.
Even if Fugee heard private confessions from minors, those supervising Fugee were always nearby, Goodness said.
"The fact is, he has done nothing wrong," the spokesman said. "Nobody has reported any activity that is inappropriate, and I think that’s important to know, especially given that he’s a figure whose name is public and whose past is public."
Under questioning by police, Fugee confessed to touching the boy, acknowledging it was a "violation" and offering that it sexually excited him, a transcript of the confession shows. A jury convicted him two years later, and he was sentenced to five years’ probation.
In 2006, an appellate panel vacated the verdict, ruling that a portion of the confession — in which Fugee described himself as bisexual or homosexual — should have been withheld from jurors because they might have drawn "an unfounded association between homosexuality and pedophilia."
The rest of the confession was not called into question.
The next year, Fugee was permitted to enter pretrial intervention, a rehabilitation program for first-time offenders, on the condition he sign the agreement with the prosecutor’s office.
Goodness, speaking for the archdiocese, has characterized Fugee in the past as a victim in the case, and Myers has repeatedly drawn criticism from advocates for his handling of the priest’s case.
In 2009, Myers placed Fugee at St. Michael’s Medical Center in Newark as a chaplain without informing hospital officials of the criminal case. After inquiries from The Star-Ledger, the hospital swiftly requested his removal.
Then late last year, Myers named Fugee co-director of the Office of Continuing Education and Ongoing Formation of Priests, igniting a new firestorm.
Goodness likens the post to a pencil-pushing job in which Fugee simply alerts other priests to seminars and educational opportunities. Advocates for clergy sex abuse victims call it a far more influential position, with responsibility for the molding of priests.
Days after The Star-Ledger disclosed the promotion in February, Fugee was removed from the Rochelle Park parish, Church of the Sacred Heart, where he had been living amid claims by parishioners they had never been told of his past. Goodness again maintained it was a matter of public record.
The pattern appears to have been repeated at St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck, part of the Diocese of Trenton.
Goodness and parishioners at St. Mary’s say Fugee became involved with the church through its youth ministers, Michael and Amy Lenehan, who are longtime friends with the priest. Indeed, Fugee publicly thanked them by name for their support in his first homily when he was reinstated to ministry in 2009, a transcript shows.
Amy Lenehan, a teacher in Colts Neck, once worked as a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, Goodness confirmed. Michael Lenehan works for the state Department of Children and Families, records show.
Goodness said the Lenehans and the church’s pastor, the Rev. Thomas Triggs, knew the terms of Fugee’s agreement with the prosecutor’s office and monitored him accordingly.
Asked whether there was a conflict or an appearance of a conflict for Fugee’s friends to monitor his behavior, Goodness called the notion "ridiculous."
"To make the assumption that lay people in authority or priests who know and are friendly with Father Fugee would be less professional or diligent in terms of ensuring the safety of the children they serve seems like an outright attack on the integrity of these individuals," he said.
The Lenehans and Triggs did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
If they knew details of Fugee’s background, they did not share all of that information with other parishioners.
Parishioner Paul Franklin, a deacon whose children have long been associated with the youth group, once met Fugee on an adult retreat. Franklin said he knew the priest had been convicted of criminal sexual contact and that the verdict had been subsequently overturned. He thought that was the end of it.
And, he said, neither the pastor nor the Lenehans informed him otherwise — that Fugee had gone through pretrial intervention or counseling for sex offenders. Or that he had pledged in writing to limit his contact with minors.
Franklin called it "deeply troubling."
"Finding this out later has left me completely flabbergasted," he said. "If I had known, I would have objected immediately. The fact that he is apparently violating this agreement makes me wonder if he was going to honor other agreements. It creates a suspicion."
The deacon said Fugee has been unofficially associated with the parish for years.
In spring 2010, Franklin and his wife attended a youth retreat with their daughter at a retreat house along Lake Hopatcong. The couple served as cooks.
Fugee, Paul Franklin said, was there for much of the weekend and heard confessions from children in a private room.
At a separate retreat in 2012, one of Franklin’s teenage daughters and other minors gave confessions to Fugee, also in a private room, the deacon said. A Facebook photo of the retreat, held at the Kateri Environmental Center in Marlboro, shows a smiling Fugee with his arm around a teenage girl.
Many other Facebook photos show Fugee on the trips to Canada. The annual trips, to a shrine in Quebec, are not sponsored by the youth group, but many of the teens attend, Franklin said.
The deacon said Fugee also has attended at least two youth group meetings at St. Mary’s.
Franklin stressed he has never witnessed or heard of Fugee engaging in inappropriate behavior.
Goodness said that Fugee never slept over on the retreats and that he attended them only as a last-minute fill-in when other priests were not available to say Mass or hear confessions. He said Fugee’s involvement lasted only a few hours, a contention Franklin disputes.
Fugee’s very presence, however, has since raised flags with the bishops of Trenton and Paterson. The Lake Hopatcong retreat house is in the Diocese of Paterson.
In a statement issued late last week, a spokesman for Paterson Bishop Arthur Serratelli flatly stated that Fugee attended the retreat without permission.
"In such situations, the participation of any priest not from the Paterson Diocese can only be permitted after our chancery office investigates the status of the priest in question and determines that the priest has done nothing inappropriate with minors," said the spokesman, Richard Sokerka. "Even if a priest’s diocese or archdiocese maintains that the priest is in good standing, the permission to be involved in ministry in the Paterson Diocese is not automatically given."
Rayanne Bennett, a spokeswoman for Trenton Bishop David M. O’Connell, likewise said Fugee’s work with St. Mary’s took place without the diocese’s knowledge or permission.
"Upon learning of this, the diocese has addressed this matter with the parish and reached out to the archdiocese," Bennett said in a statement. "The Archdiocese has reported that Father Fugee is a priest in good standing and free to minister in another diocese."
Bennett declined to say how the issue was addressed with St. Mary’s.
To Mark Crawford, New Jersey director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national advocacy and support group, Fugee’s contact with children shows he can not be trusted.
"If you can take such liberties with an agreement you signed with the prosecutor’s office, then how can we trust his commitment not to harm children?" Crawford asked. "Frankly, he shows no fear of the law and a clear disregard for the law."
Crawford and other advocates were equally critical of Myers.
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a watchdog group that tracks abuse allegations against priests across the nation, called Myers’ thinking "incomprehensible."
"There have been other violations of the zero-tolerance rule adopted by the bishops in Dallas, but this is one of the most egregious violations of that policy that I have seen," Barrett Doyle said. "The recklessness is alarming."