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Diocese caught off guard by furor

Jan 31, 2006 |

The Paterson Diocese, facing questions about why a defrocked priest and admitted child molester is living quietly and unsupervised in a residential neighborhood, promised Monday to review the matter and consider whether it needs to take additional steps to monitor rogue ex-priests.

"I believe we do have a moral obligation to look into this," said the Rev. James T. Mahoney, the vicar general and No. 2 official in the Roman Catholic diocese. "I know of no family that would be comfortable with a sexual abuser living near them."

But as the diocese mulled the issue, some of James T. Hanley's victims began taking matters into their own hands. Mahoney's statement came one day after the victims blanketed Hanley's Paterson neighborhood with leaflets describing his case. They said Monday that was just the beginning.

"He will be looking over his shoulder as long as he is still alive," Ray Skettini said. "Someone has to do it. The church has washed their hands of this."

Hanley said Monday that all the attention -- including an angry confrontation with the victims near his apartment Sunday -- had prompted him to consider moving.

"No matter what I do, I'm dead in the water," Hanley said. "They're going to come after me."

The 69-year-old Paterson native said he spent most of Monday "just wandering around," away from his home, including a visit to a park in Hunterdon County.

Hanley admitted in a sworn statement that he molested at least 15 boys from 1968 to 1982 at parishes in Mendham, Pompton Plains and Parsippany and was removed from the priesthood nearly three years ago.

Because victims waited years before coming forward, the statute of limitations barred prosecution, so he was never charged and did not have to register as a sex offender under Megan's Law.

But a news article in The Record, in which Hanley told his story publicly for the first time, prompted the victims to go to Hanley's neighborhood Sunday to warn people that a sex offender was living among them.

While they were doing so, Hanley showed up, sparking a tense showdown.

He said Monday that he "was moved by the Holy Spirit" to confront his victims.

Despite his admissions, Hanley insists some of the accusations against him have been exaggerated. He said he molested about 12 boys, but was sick with alcoholism and bipolar disorder. He says he hasn't molested anyone since the early 1980s.

"I feel really at peace with what happened Sunday," Hanley said. "I had to let them know what was on my mind."

But the showdown only infuriated the victims.

Skettini, for example, said it convinced him Hanley was still dangerous.

"At first, I was wondering whether we were going too far," said Skettini, who said he was molested as a 12-year-old at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Pompton Plains. "But when he showed up, he certainly showed me this is what exactly has to happen."

The 49-year-old Sussex County man added: "He still has that charisma. And if somebody doesn't know about him, he could find a way to get children on his lap."

Victims say the diocese should have monitored Hanley after removing him from the priesthood in 2003. Church officials conceded Monday that they did not know Hanley had recently moved from South Paterson to another part of the city.

"Our first inkling was watching him on TV," Mahoney said.

The victims also lambasted the church for paying Hanley a stipend of around $2,100 a month. The diocese questioned Monday whether that amount was accurate, but Hanley provided The Record with a 2003 letter from church officials promising him $2,060 a month.

Mark Serrano, who said he was abused for seven years by Hanley, called on Paterson Bishop Arthur Serratelli to meet with residents of Hanley's neighborhood and to require Hanley to undergo periodic evaluations.

"We are talking about an admitted child molester who takes a paycheck from the bishop," Serrano said. "Isn't there a minimum standard of responsibility here?"

Serratelli and other church officials said the diocese has no legal standing because Hanley is no longer a priest and doesn't live on church property. They argue the church can't act as a law enforcement officer.

"The obligation for any surveillance would fall to the state and not the diocese, because Jim Hanley has been severed from the diocese of Paterson," Serratelli said in a prepared statement.

Nevertheless, by day's end, Mahoney said the diocese had decided to rethink the matter. He said the diocese would soon hold discussions with priests, its lawyer and the board that reviews accusations against priests.

"We have to be so careful that we protect the rights of everyone," Mahoney said. "Both the victims and the accused."

An official with the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office said the Hanley case is one of many cases that fall through the cracks. The statute of limitations on sex assault already was revoked in 1996, but that action didn't affect older cases.

"I think this case highlights the limitations of the sex offender registry program," said Joseph Del Russo, chief assistant prosecutor. "The requirement for community notification is you have to have been convicted."

Del Russo said victims could petition the Legislature to amend Megan's Law to force offenders like Hanley to register.

He said it would be highly unusual if the diocese, or any other employer, sought to monitor former employees.

"You don't hear of Verizon or Merrill Lynch having any obligation," he said. "It would open a real Pandora's box of liability for employers."

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