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Home World For North Jersey Catholics, recent abuse allegations are a test of faith

For North Jersey Catholics, recent abuse allegations are a test of faith



Local Catholics respond to sexual abuse scandal in the church.
Amy Newman, North Jersey

For Catholics it is the scandal that will not disappear.

First, there was the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Newark, after allegations that he had sexually abused minors and adult seminarians decades ago. Pope Francis directed McCarrick to a "life of prayer and penance" while awaiting a canonical trial to investigate the allegations.

Then there was the explosive report from a grand jury in Pennsylvania that has caused 300 years of rampant sexual abuse by 300 priests with more than 1,000 children as victims. And, as the grand jury noted, there was a rampant cover-up in Pennsylvania when Catholic bishops frequently commuted abusive priests from church to village instead of calling the police.

Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò recently accused Pope Francis of being aware of McCarrick's alleged sexual misconduct, but did not object until people reported McCarrick's mistreatment in interviews with The New York Times.

Last week, the prosecutor of New York issued subpoenas to eight dioceses as part of an investigation into whether allegations of child sexual abuse had been covered up. New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced Thursday that his office would initiate a separate investigation by setting up a toll-free hotline for victims and setting up a claims-handling task force. The number is 855-363-6548.

Mary Ann Hilt, a longtime parishioner of the Sacred Heart Church in Clifton, said she had seen no evidence that Pope Francis knew of the sexual charges against former Newark archbishop Theodore McCarrick. Catholics, she said, should give him the benefit of the doubt. (Photo: Amy Newman /

"The report revealed that sexual assault on children – and efforts to cover up such attacks – was more prevalent in Pennsylvania than we ever thought possible," Grewal said in a statement. "We owe it to the people of New Jersey to find out if the same thing happened here."

The Metuchen diocese also suspended Pastor Alfonso Condorson, the pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Bound Brook, last week until a reproof of allegations that he was trying to seduce a 24-year-old male parishioner during his holiday in Cancun, Mexico, in the year 1997. Condorson, formerly known as Alfonso de Condorpusa, was at that time pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Hackensack. The Newark archdiocese then investigated the allegations, but no action was taken.

More: The Diocese of Metuchen suspended the priest in the review of allegations of misconduct

More: New Jersey Attorney General to investigate sex abuse allegations among Catholic clergy

Mike Kelly: The secret life of Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and reports of sexual abuse

For Catholics, this latest round of abuse and cover-up allegations has become a true test of faith. It has done more than deal with the dark days of the early 2000s when The Boston Globe revealed widespread sexual abuse by priests in its Pulitzer Prize-winning "Spotlight" series.

In New Jersey, the scandal that has happened elsewhere has the potential to go deeper and eradicate priests who have been quietly removed from their parishes but never persecuted. And it could reach as far as the Vatican, where Pope Francis, once considered a reformer, was called to resign.

A sample of North Jersey Catholics attending the Mass last week suggests that the Pope still has their support. But given the severity of the crisis, this support is far from over, and the pressure on the Vatican seems to be growing all the time to make real reforms – and fast.

"I do not think Pope Francis should resign, he has the right to defend himself," Susan Cox said when she and her husband Bill arrived at St. Philip's R.C. Church in Clifton last Sunday. "But if it's proven that he has made a cover-up, then perhaps he should do it."

"They need better psychological tests for these priests," her husband added. "You better examine her."

When asked if she supported the recent call from Senator Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, for a grand jury investigation in New Jersey, which was now initiated by Grewal, they unanimously replied, "Absolutely."

The story continues under the gallery.

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Mary Ann Hilt, a longtime church worker at the Sacred Heart Church in Clifton attending the Latin Mass, said she had seen no evidence that the Pope knew about the sexual charges against McCarrick. Catholics, she said, should give him the benefit of the doubt.

"I feel a lot, it's hearsay," said Hilt, who called the Pope a great leader for his attitude in supporting the poor. "I feel like more research is needed, it's too early."

There is talk of a civil war in the church, as Viganò last month voiced his allegations against the pope in a 7,000-page letter with conservatives on one side and more liberal Catholics with Pope Francis on the other. Many had high hopes for reform, as Franz von his conservative predecessor Benedict XVI. Francis has moved the Church in a more progressive direction, weakening his traditional attitude towards homosexuality while at the same time accepting diversity.

"I do not think there is a war," said Paul DeVita of Clifton. "When Richard Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford really had a hard time reprimanding him, and what he said was that we had to go on." I think if they were to expose Pope Francis, the same result would come about Put someone in charge who is part of what is happening now. "

Sacred Heart Church in Clifton. (Photo: Amy Newman /

In the midst of demands for unity, the latest scandal has revived the debate over whether priests can marry. Many see the demand for a celibate life, considered sacred, the impossible in the modern world.

"I think they may have to marry priests," Sharon Rubacky said as she left the church of St. Anne at Fair Lawn. "You ask someone who goes to the seminar to be single all his life, I think that's asking a lot."

But Nelida Rivera, another St. Anne pastor, had a different opinion. "I do not think it's a good idea to let priests marry," she said. "That would take away from her priestly duties – if you are a priest, you are a priest around the clock, seven days a week."

Nevertheless, Rivera admitted that she is a mother affected by the current scandal. "The trust is gone," she said.

Demand patience, signs of impatience

In 2002, the country's Catholic bishops met in Dallas to pass reforms designed to protect children from sexual abuse by priests. Stephen Schneck, a former director of the Institute of Political Science and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, said recent allegations of sex abuse have shown that these changes are not enough.

"The laity generally feel cheated by our church," he said. "I think, for those who are pursuing these things, we had hoped that the 2002 Dallas reforms would be enough to tackle this problem, and it seems clear that additional action is needed, and I think that among these measures is a more specific one Control required by American law enforcement. "

Schneck said Francis had been "more diligent" than his predecessors in addressing the abuse crisis and called on a number of senior prelates to resign over cover-ups in Australia, Chile, Ireland and elsewhere.

"That said, Pope Francis has only been in office for a few years, and most of these allegations go back decades, so it will take … years to clear it up," he said. "I think we have continued to ask that Pope Francis strengthen his leadership in this regard.

"In many ways, it has been a breath of fresh air for our church in these times, but this abuse crisis must be high on its list of priorities," he added.

But Bob Hoatson of West Orange, founder of a charitable organization working with victims of clergy sex abuse, said the pope had disappointed him.

"When he was elected, Pope Francis said the right things," he said. "And he also founded the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Children and Adolescents, and that was a good move, but the only thing we have received from Francis since becoming a Pope is very, very nice words and platitudes; We have not received action steps from him. "

Hoatson said he was inclined to believe an archbishop's letter claiming that Francis, along with other church leaders, knew allegations of sexual abuse of McCarrick. If that proved, he said, the Pope should resign.

"Stop the cover-up of sexual abuse that has taken place for decades and centuries," Hoatson said, describing what the pope thought he should do to tackle the problem. "Then maybe I'll think about it, but right now my suspicion is that Pope Francis is hiding something, and it does not look good for his future at all."

Of the 300 priests indicted by the Grand Jury in Pennsylvania for sex crimes, four had connections to New Jersey. One of them, Pastor Augustine Giella, served in a number of parishes in Bergen County before moving to Pennsylvania, including the Holy Trinity in Hackensack, the St. Catherine's in Glen Rock and the Church of the Epiphany at Cliffside Park. (He also served with Our Lady of Sorrows in Jersey City.) He died in 1992 while awaiting trial for allegations of possession of child pornography.

The others named in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Review with New Jersey Associations are Rev. James Hopkins, Rev. John P. Connor, and Rev. A. Gregory Uhrig. Hopkins was sentenced to 10 years in prison for harassing a cleric in Camden County. Connor, who served in parishes in Vineland, Gloucester and Haddon Heights, was charged in 1984 with harassing a 14-year-old boy. He avoided the prison by accepting a pretext that allowed him to join the preparatory intervention program for first-time offenders.

Uhrig, now a weekend helper at Our Lady of Lourdes Readingon, allegedly fussed over a 13-year-old in a church in Easton, Pennsylvania in the 1970s. He was later found not guilty by a canonical board of examiners, and by the time prosecution charges were reported, the statute of limitations had expired, according to the report.

I rely on faith

For many lay Catholics in Northern Jersey, their faith in the Church has been shattered, but their faith remains strong. The St. Anne's Church was filled last Sunday morning for the Mass at 11:30. Father Joe Doyle spoke of forgiveness in his sermon, and although he did not mention the current scandal, one could draw the implication.

"Forgiveness is a first step," he told parishioners.

The sin and the gift of forgiveness that leads to salvation are considered the pillars of faith. Instead of judging and condemning, Catholics look on as Jesus when they forgive.

"I do not know the Pope, I do not judge him," Daniel Belonia said when he arrived with his wife Charissa at St. Philip in Clifton. "Corruption is everywhere, I'm just trying to focus on God."

"We believe in God, not in the Pope," Charissa added.

"It's a faith that we have in God, not the man," said a Clifton man who attended Mass in Sacrifice Heart, Clifton, calling his Christian name just Dan. "We understand that the priests are ordained and they are servants of God, and they are just like us and they are fallible."

Dan described himself as a "traditionalist" and said he never liked Pope Francis, because of what he said are the "radical changes" that the Pope makes. He quoted the Pope's suggestion to change some of the words of the Lord's Prayer.

"It's been like this for over 2000 years, how could you change that, and that's the turning point?" He said. "There are many changes in the world, and I disagree, God created us, He created us, man and woman, and we should follow that, and God makes no mistakes."

At the St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in Passaic, some who attended the afternoon Spanish Mass said that priests who are sexual or underage or sexually abused should be punished. But they have acknowledged that it is often difficult over time.

Under current law in New Jersey, victims are brought before the civil court until the age of 20, or two years after the date on which they associate the abuse with the trauma. But priests and other offenders can not be prosecuted for cases older than 1996, when the state abolished the prescription for sexual abuse.

"The church is run by men, but it is also led by the Spirit, and the men are men who are not perfect," said Maritza Penagos of Garfield, answering a question from a Spanish reporter. "There will always be scandals against the church, I pray for Pope Francis to help him, to know what to do and what decisions he must make."

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