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4 Priests Face Church Trial

Jan 9, 2003 | Daily Record

Four priests of the Paterson Roman Catholic Diocese, all of whom worked in Morris County, face a church trial after a review board ruled that charges that they sexually abused children are credible and recommended subjecting them to church legal proceedings, diocese officials said Wednesday.

Bishop Frank J. Rodimer of the Paterson Diocese accepted the board's recommendation and referred the four cases to a diocese official. The official is supposed to gather evidence and, according to a church legal expert, act as prosecutor before a panel of priests who make a final judgment and determine punishment.

The review board, appointed by church officials and made up of priests and lay people, examined five cases in the diocese and recommended the reinstatement of one priest.

Its rulings against the other four priests Monsignor John Henry Dericks, the Rev. Ralph Sodano, the Rev. Allen Stepien and the Rev. James A.D. Smith -- were made public by the diocese in a statement issued on Wednesday.

"In each case, the review board found the allegations to be credible," said Marianna Thompson, a spokeswoman for Rodimer.

Dericks, a former pastor at Holy Spirit in Pequannock and Assumption parish in Morristown, paid $25,000 in a legal settlement almost 10 years ago to a woman who accused him of abusing her while she was a child in the 1960s. Dericks, who lives in Andover, is retired but had been saying Mass at a local church until late last year, when diocese officials told him he could not represent himself as a priest while his case was being reviewed.

Sodano had been accused of abuse last year by more than one person, diocese officials said, and was removed from his job as pastor of Our Lady of the Lake in Washington Township. The diocese also removed Stepien as pastor of St. Mark the Evangelist in Washington Township and Smith from a position as assistant priest at St. Therese in Roxbury after each had one allegation made against him last year.

Two canon lawyers representing the accused priests did not return phone calls Wednesday.

Thompson said all of those cases will be handled by a diocese official known as the promoter of justice, the Rev. Mark Condon, who was appointed to that post last year. Criminal charges cannot be filed in any of the cases because the statute of limitations has expired.

Monsignor Thomas Green, who teaches at Catholic University's School of Canon Law, said the promoter of justice represents the church and plays a role similar to a criminal prosecutor. Church officials at the Holy See in Rome have an option of trying the case there, he said, but they are expected to allow diocese tribunals, composed of three priests, to handle most cases.

Victims' advocates say they don't trust the tribunals because they are composed of priests and most of their proceedings will not be public.

"Since the adjudication of the cases is being kept within the clerical culture, I'm not optimistic about the outcome," said Mark Serrano, a former Mendham resident and trustee of the national Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

"In whose interest is he (the promoter of justice) serving? Is it in the interest of the church or the victims and their families?"

Condon did not return a phone call on Wednesday.

Cheryl Christopher of Passaic said she was pleased that the review board found her accusations against Dericks to be credible. In a story published in the Daily Record last year, she said Dericks abused her while she was a parishioner at Holy Spirit. She said she did not tell diocese officials about it until 1993 when she hired a lawyer and threatened to sue Dericks because she feared that she would not be believed. Dericks refused to be interviewed for last year's story.

"It's nice to hear that they (the review board) said I was credible and that this was sexual abuse," Christopher said Wednesday.

"I just don't trust the system. Now he's going to be tried by his peers. It would be nice if they defrock him. Then I will feel like I've been taken seriously."

American bishops approved a charter last year that requires priests found to have abused children either to be removed from the priesthood or to remain a priest but be barred from any ministry and be required to live a life of penance, perhaps in a monastery.

After the charter was approved at a conference in Dallas in June, Rodimer asked one priest, James Hanley, to agree to be removed from the priesthood. Hanley, a former pastor at St. Joseph's parish in Mendham and accused of abusing more than a dozen children, said he would voluntarily leave the priesthood, church officials said.

At the same time, Rodimer removed another priest, William Cramer, from his position as director of pastoral care at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson. Cramer pleaded guilty to abusing two Sparta boys in the 1980s and was sentenced to five years' probation. Church officials have said that Cramer has hired a canon lawyer to try to keep his job.

The Rev. Thomas G. Rainforth, a former Mendham priest, was removed as an assistant at a Clifton parish last year but later was reinstated after the diocese review board ruled that allegations against him did not meet the definition of sexual abuse.

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