on May 05, 2013 at 10:10 AM, updated May 05, 2013 at 3:17 PM
At Holy Family Church in Nutley, the Rev. Michael Fugee was a familiar face.
He sometimes said Mass. He visited his close friend, the Rev. Paul Bochicchio. And he gave occasional talks to the parish youth group on the Bible’s meaning.
“One thing I can tell you is that his greatest fans are teenagers,” said Bochicchio, a monsignor and Holy Family’s pastor.
Bochicchio makes no secret of Fugee’s interactions with young people. Indeed, there was nothing furtive about it. Photos on Facebook show the two priests celebrating Mass together and joining in a prayer circle with teens on an annual pilgrimage to a Canadian shrine.
A week after The Star-Ledger disclosed that Fugee had violated a lifetime ban on ministry to children by working with a Monmouth County youth group, what’s become clear is that the purported supervision of the priest by the Archdiocese of Newark amounted to little or no supervision at all.
Fugee, who admitted to police in 2001 that he fondled a teenage boy, went where he wanted to go, whether it was to youth retreats outside the archdiocese or to give talks to the teens at Holy Family in Nutley. If officials in the archdiocese were watching, no one raised a flag.
Fugee, 52, was granted leave from ministry Thursday after the most tumultuous week of Archbishop John J. Myers’ 12-year tenure in Newark.
Myers has faced calls for his resignation from inside and outside of the archdiocese. Advocates for victims of sexual abuse continue to protest. And the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office is actively investigating Fugee’s work with minors. Bochicchio, an ardent supporter of Fugee, said he was interviewed by investigators last week.
James Goodness, a spokesman for Myers, did not respond to a request for comment yesterday on the new disclosure that Fugee worked with children in Nutley.
Fugee remains a priest but may not wear clerical garb, say Mass or engage in sacramental work. The archdiocese has not disclosed where is living or made him available for comment. Myers, too, has declined all comment.
Theresa Padovano, the New Jersey coordinator for Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group that grew out of the clergy sex abuse crisis, called the continuing revelations about Fugee disturbing and demanded that Myers be held accountable.
“If the archbishop can’t responsibly handle this kind of supervision, then he needs to resign and let someone else come in who can supervise these people,” Padovano said. “We shouldn’t have to guess where these people are. They say they’re going to take care of these things, but then they don’t follow through responsibly.”
The lifetime ban on ministry to children was established in 2007, when Fugee and the archdiocese signed a court-sanctioned agreement with the prosecutor’s office in Bergen County. The document states Fugee may not have unsupervised contact with children, minister to minors or hold any position in which children are involved.
The agreement was a condition of Fugee’s acceptance into pretrial intervention, a rehabilitation program for first-time offenders. He also agreed to undergo counseling for sex offenders.
The prosecutor’s office had previously won a conviction against Fugee on a charge of aggravated criminal sexual contact for groping the teen while wrestling with him. An appellate panel overturned the verdict in 2006, ruling jurors should not have been told that Fugee questioned his sexual identity.
With the 2007 agreement, the archdiocese pledged to supervise the priest, who was reinstated to ministry in 2009 after an archdiocese review board concluded no sexual abuse had occurred.
Goodness, the spokesman for Myers, insisted for days after The Star-Ledger’s revelations that the agreement had not been breached because Fugee was under the supervision of other priests or lay ministers when he worked with children at St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck.
Goodness abruptly reversed course Thursday, saying it was clear Fugee had violated the document and that he acted without the archdiocese’s knowledge or permission.
Bochicchio, like the archdiocese early last week, said it was his understanding that Fugee’s actions were within the scope of the agreement because he was never left alone with children.
“At the time, it seemed to me we were well within the guidelines that were established,” Bochicchio said. Now, he said, “I don’t know what to think.”
Fugee spoke to the youth group at Holy Family in Nutley four or five times, always in the presence of other adults, Bochicchio said.
The two have attended the annual trips to Canada for more than two decades, he said. The pilgrimages are not hosted by a youth group, but are attended by teens from both Holy Family and St. Mary’s. The youth ministers at the Colts Neck church are the common link, having been married by Bochicchio. The lay ministers, Michael and Amy Lenehan, also are longtime friends with Fugee.
Bochicchio offered a spirited defense of the priest, calling him “one of the gentlest and most compassionate men I know.”
“I feel he’s been maligned, because if anyone knew him, they would know he is not the monster or predator that he is made out to be,” the monsignor said.
The entire criminal case against Fugee, he said, has been a misunderstanding from the start.
While calling it “imprudent” of Fugee to wrestle with a 13-year-old boy, Bochicchio said any contact with the teen’s genitals was accidental.
“When you’re wrestling, that could happen,” he said.
Bochicchio said the teen waited more than six months to report the incident, calling the delay significant.
“It seems kind of strange to me that if this was an immediate concern to someone, it would have been reported immediately,” he said.
The monsignor also said Fugee has told him he confessed to police only after hours of interrogation without a lawyer. Fugee ultimately recanted.
“I know someone who went through an experience like that, and after that, you’re almost ready to say anything,” Bochicchio said.
The balance of the confession, in which Fugee told authorities he was sexually excited by touching the teen, was never called into question by the appeals court.
Asked why Fugee agreed to pretrial intervention, essentially admitting wrongdoing, if he believed he was innocent, Bochicchio said, “People get to a point where they don’t want to fight anymore.”
“The real proof is that he was allowed back into ministry,” Bochicchio said, referring to the archdiocese review board finding that no abuse took place. “I know several cases of priests who were allowed to return to ministry because there wasn’t any real substance to the charges against them.”
The monsignor said he last spoke with Fugee just before he asked to be removed from ministry Thursday afternoon. Though Goodness, Myers’ spokesman, maintains the archbishop did not push Fugee out, Bochicchio said he suspects the decision was mutual.
“I know he values this priesthood, and I know this certainly was devastating to him,” the friend said.
Bochicchio added that Fugee did not intend to leave the priesthood and was hoping to return to ministry, albeit with tight restrictions. He said Fugee was in no way a danger to children.
“I know the pain that people who have been sexually abused go through,” Bochicchio said. “I have counseled them, and I know it’s one of the worst things that can happen to a person. But I also know it can lead to a witch hunt mentality, and they’re putting him in that context.”