By Rayanne Bennett | Associate Publisher
A recent announcement by the State Attorney General that he will open an investigation into allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors in the five (arch)dioceses in New Jersey has drawn statements of support and pledges of cooperation from Catholic leaders, including Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., here in the Diocese of Trenton.
Word of the New Jersey investigation follows on the heels of last month’s release by the Pennsylvania Attorney General of that state’s grand jury probe into more than a thousand sexual abuse claims against several hundred priests over a 70-year period. The investigation was conducted in six Pennsylvania dioceses.
In announcing his decision Sept. 6 to open a similar inquiry in New Jersey, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal stated that he was empaneling a task force to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy within the Catholic dioceses of New Jersey, as well as any efforts to cover up such abuse. He further stated that he has authorized the task force to present evidence to a state grand jury, including through the use of subpoenas to compel testimony and the production of documents, in addition to other investigative tools.
Speaking on behalf of the New Jersey bishops, Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, responded to the news, stating, “We welcome the Attorney General’s investigation, and will cooperate fully. We believe cooperating with law enforcement is essential to restoring faith and trust.” Brannigan emphasized the N.J. bishops’ conviction that “every parent and child deserve a safe environment to learn and explore their faith. This means that all spaces where teaching, worship, and ministry take place must be free from fear. There will be no compromise on this principle.
“We will remain vigilant to ensure the safety of every child we serve.”
Brannigan also stated that “New Jersey is not Pennsylvania.” He explained that in 2002 “all of the New Jersey Catholic dioceses entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Attorney General and the County Prosecutors to facilitate the immediate intervention of law enforcement whenever there is any allegation that a minor is being sexually abused. The dioceses also report all past allegations of abuse to public authorities, whether the person bringing the complaint is now an adult, no matter how long ago the abuse is alleged to have occurred, and whether or not the accused is living or deceased.”
In a statement posted on diocesan media, Bishop O’Connell referenced the Pennsylvania abuse reports and the “credible and substantiated allegations” that have emerged about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s abuse of a minor and several adult seminarians. Bishop O’Connell stated, “All of these reported allegations are indefensible, revolting and horrific. They have done irreparable harm to their victims, their families and to the Church. Clergy and faithful alike have rightfully reacted with anger, outrage, disgust and disillusionment. It has profoundly shaken their faith and devastated the credibility of the Church’s leadership.
“As a bishop, I hang my head in shame knowing that even my deepest apology is inadequate. Still, I offer it again.”
The Bishop added, “A Church – any organization or agency, community or occupation, religious or otherwise, even a family for that matter – where innocent children and vulnerable adults are not protected or provided a safe environment has lost its way. The Crucifixion of Christ continues in their suffering. Our faith assures us there must be a resurrection ... and that resurrection will occur through our renewed and dedicated work to ensure that all children and vulnerable adults are safe in our churches, our ministries, our schools, our communities, our families.”
In response to the New Jersey investigation, Bishop O’Connell stated, “It is my hope and prayer that an objective, honest and independent investigation will confirm what I wholeheartedly believe to be true … that all allegations received by the Diocese of Trenton have been turned over to the prosecutors in accordance with our commitment made to them in 2002 along with the other dioceses in the state.… As Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, I pledge my full cooperation and attention in every way necessary with the Attorney General and his task force. It will not change the past, nothing will. Hopefully, it will help us shape a future free of the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.”
To help identify potential victims, Attorney General Grewal also has established a new dedicated hotline to report allegations of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. The hotline will be staffed by trained professionals and operate on a 24/7 basis. The toll-free number is 855-363-6548.
Senator Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), in a formal statement issued Sept. 18, questioned whether victims who are calling the hotline can report their abuse if they signed a confidentiality agreement with the Church as part of an abuse settlement. Brannigan responded, “All Catholic dioceses in New Jersey comply with the terms of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s 2002 Dallas Charter, which says, “ARTICLE 3. Dioceses/eparchies are not to enter into settlements which bind the parties to confidentiality, unless the victim/survivor requests confidentiality and this request is noted in the text of the agreement.”
Brannigan continued, “Some victims have requested confidentiality, and the dioceses have honored those requests.” He explained that the Catholic bishops of New Jersey “do not object, and would not take any action, if a victim chose to speak out, even if there is a confidentiality provision [from before the Charter in 2002, or at the victim’s request] in a settlement agreement.”
He emphasized, “Settlements were intended solely to compensate victims, not silence them.”
To report abuse, or to learn more about what the Catholic Church has done in New Jersey to protect children and assist victims, visit dioceseoftrenton.org/about-child-protection-efforts.