May 05, 2013 at 8:01 PM, updated May 06, 2013 at 11:45 AM
The Rev. Michael Fugee poses with Michael and Amy Lenehan, longtime friends and the youth ministers at St. Mary’s parish in Colts Neck, during an annual pilgrimage to Canada. The couple has resigned their positions in the wake of the scandal surrounding Fugee’s contact with kids. (Facebook Photo)
COLTS NECK — The pastor and two youth ministers at the Monmouth County church where a visiting priest violated a lifetime ban on ministry to children have stepped down from their posts, the latest fallout in an escalating scandal enveloping Newark Archbishop John J. Myers.
The Rev. Thomas Triggs, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck, announced his resignation from the pulpit during Mass on Saturday evening, hours after meeting with Trenton Bishop David M. O’Connell.
In one of his final acts, Triggs accepted the resignations of the youth ministers — Michael and Amy Lenehan — who had invited the Rev. Michael Fugee to take part in youth retreats and other activities with teens, a spokeswoman for the Trenton Diocese said in a statement.
O’Connell, in a message read to parishioners during Mass on Saturday and today, said recent “troubling events” and the “intense scrutiny” surrounding them made it clear a change in parish leadership was in “the best interest of all concerned.”
“There are few things in life as important as protecting our children and young people,” O’Connell said. “We must all recommit ourselves to that goal by supporting the policies of the Diocese of Trenton designed to do precisely that.”
Triggs will go on sabbatical until he receives a new assignment, the diocese spokeswoman said.
The diocese’s statement did not indicate whether O’Connell demanded that Triggs and the Lenehans step down.
The Rev. Thomas Triggs has been removed as pastor from St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck.St. Mary’s Parish
O’Connell previously announced the resignations in an e-mail to priests of the diocese, said the Rev. John Bambrick, a diocesan priest who received the message. Bambrick said the bishop met with Triggs at the church Saturday morning.
The shake-up at St. Mary’s comes a week after The Star-Ledger disclosed that Fugee, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, had been involved with the parish youth group in defiance of an agreement that bars him from ministering to children or holding any position in which children are involved.
Fugee, 52, agreed to the terms in 2007 to avoid retrial on charges that he fondled the genitals of a 13-year-old boy. The Newark Archdiocese also signed on to the agreement, pledging to supervise Fugee and to keep him away from children.
But The Star-Ledger has found that supervision was, at best, lax, allowing the priest to interact with minors not only at St. Mary’s but at Holy Family Church in Nutley, where Fugee is friends with the pastor, Monsignor Paul Bochicchio. Fugee was granted leave from ministry Thursday.
Bambrick, an advocate for victims of clergy sex abuse, sharply criticized Myers in an interview today, saying that by allowing someone who admitted to groping a child to work as an active priest, the archbishop has violated the policies of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the landmark Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted by the nation’s bishops in Dallas in 2002.
“Essentially, Archbishop Myers has erased 10 years of hard work by the church in the United States to ensure people are safe,” said Bambrick, a survivor of clergy sex abuse. “He has called into question the integrity of all of us who work so hard to ensure the safety of children, and it’s really disheartening.”
Bambrick added that the “body count” spawned by the controversy is now up to four, with the pastor, the Lenehans and Fugee.
“The person who caused all this upset is Archbishop Myers, and he’s still in office,” Bambrick said. “It seems like the archbishop needs to take responsibility for his own actions, as everyone else has in this crisis.”
Myers has declined to directly comment on the issue. His spokesman, James Goodness, initially defended Fugee’s interactions with children, saying they did not violate the memorandum of understanding Fugee signed with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office because the priest was always under the supervision of other clergymen or lay ministers.
Late last week, amid a criminal investigation by the prosecutor’s office and national criticism of Myers, Goodness took a contrary stance, acknowledging Fugee violated the court-sanctioned agreement and saying the priest had acted without the knowledge of the archdiocese. Fugee concurred with those statements in his letter seeking leave, stating it was “my fault alone.”
O’Connell, the Trenton bishop, took swift action after The Star-Ledger disclosed Fugee’s connection to St. Mary’s, immediately barring him from working in the diocese. O’Connell has said Fugee was in the diocese without his knowledge or permission.
Such permission is a prerequisite for any priest who wants to work in another diocese, though some bishops enforce the rule more strictly than others.
In the Diocese of Trenton, Bambrick said, O’Connell has made clear that every visiting priest must file a letter of suitability, in which officials in the priest’s home diocese attest that the priest is in good standing, has not been disciplined or convicted of a crime and has not acted with minors in an inappropriate manner, among other conditions.
It is the responsibility of a pastor to ensure that any visiting priest has filed the form, Bambrick said. Triggs, the pastor at St. Mary’s, failed to do that, the bishop said.
The controversy has bitterly divided the Colts Neck church. Some parishioners have openly demanded the removal of Triggs and the Lenehans, calling it reckless to allow a man who admitted fondling a child to spend time with the youth group. Others in the parish continued to support them.
At a contentious meeting at St. Mary’s Friday night, Triggs and the Lenehans faced repeated questions about what they knew and why they permitted Fugee to attend retreats and hear confessions, according to three people who attended. The meeting was closed to the media.
The Lenehans have been friends with Fugee for decades, and when he returned to ministry in 2009, he personally thanked them for their support in his first homily, a transcript shows.
Triggs and the Lenehans insisted during the meeting they were unaware of the agreement with prosecutors — declarations met with skepticism by some parishioners, according to those present.
Triggs and the Lenehans have not responded to numerous requests for comment.
Amy Lenehan, a former spokeswoman for the Newark Archdiocese, is a special education teacher at a Colts Neck elementary school. At least one parishioner at St. Mary’s has written to the school district, questioning her role as a teacher in light of the fact that she and her husband invited Fugee to youth group activities at the church.
Superintendent Fredrik Oberkehr said Amy Lenehan remains a teacher in good standing.
“I’ve done my due diligence,” Oberkehr said. “To the best of my knowledge, Father Fugee has not attended any events that were associated directly with the school.”
Michael Lenehan works as a quality assurance specialist in the state Department of Children and Families. A spokeswoman for the agency declined to comment on whether any complaints have been filed against him.
To some parishioners, the failure of Triggs to block Fugee from the parish is especially troubling. For nearly two decades, Triggs worked closely with the Rev. Terence McAlinden in the Trenton Diocese’s youth ministry and at St. Theresa Roman Catholic Church in Little Egg Harbor Township, where McAlinden was pastor. Triggs served for a time as assistant pastor.
In 2007, McAlinden was removed from ministry after being credibly accused of sexual abuse. At least two more men have since come forward with similar allegations.
Parishioners say the allegations should have served as a wake-up call for Triggs, who has been pastor at St Mary’s for six years.
“Even if he had no knowledge of what happened with Terry McAlinden, if he never spotted it or observed it, you’d think it would make him hyper-vigilant,” said Grace Collins, a longtime St. Mary’s parishioner. “You’d think he’d do everything he can to make sure something like that never happens in a youth group in his parish.”