By Mark Mueller
COLTS NECK, N.J. (RNS) The pastor and two youth ministers at a Catholic 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 (May 4), hours after meeting with his bishop, David M. O’Connell of the Diocese of Trenton.
Triggs accepted the resignations of the youth ministers — Michael and Amy Lenehan — who had invited the accused priest, 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.
In a message read to parishioners during weekend Masses, O’Connell 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 shake-up at St. Mary’s comes a week after The Star-Ledger disclosed that Fugee, a priest of the neighboring Archdiocese of Newark, had been involved with the St. Mary’s 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 supervision was, at best, lax, allowing the priest to interact with minors not only at St. Mary’s but at Holy Family Catholic Church in Nutley, N.J., where Fugee is friends with the pastor. Fugee was granted leave from ministry Thursday.
The Rev. John Bambrick, a priest in the Trenton diocese and an advocate for victims of clergy sex abuse, sharply criticized Myers, saying that by allowing someone who admitted to groping a child to work as an active priest, the archbishop has violated the 2002 get-tough reforms adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“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, including 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 prosecutors because the priest was always under the supervision of other clergymen or lay ministers.
Goodness later took a different stance, acknowledging that 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 in barring him from working in his diocese. O’Connell has said Fugee was in the diocese without his knowledge or permission.
The controversy has bitterly divided the Colts Neck church. At a contentious closed-door meeting at St. Mary’s Friday night, Triggs and the Lenehans faced repeated questions about why they permitted Fugee to attend retreats and hear confessions, according to three people who attended.
The Lenehans have been friends with Fugee for decades. 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.
(Mark Mueller writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark)