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Four Local Priests Face Trial

Jan 9, 2003 | Herald News

After months of hearing testimony from alleged victims, the Diocese of Paterson has determined there is enough evidence to try four priests accused of sexually abusing minors.

"All the allegations have been found to be credible, and the matters are now in canonical process," said Marianna Thompson, the diocesan spokeswoman.

Monsignor John Dericks, the Rev. James A.D. Smith, the Rev. Ralph Sodano and the Rev. Alan Stepien, were all placed on administrative leave, after allegations of sexual abuse were brought to the diocese last year.

The allegations, some of which were more than 40 years old, were determined by Morris, Sussex and Passaic County prosecutors to be past New Jersey's statute of limitations.

A new church policy, which was adopted by U.S. Catholic Bishops in June 2002 and revised in November, stipulates that all cases involving alleged sexual abuse by priests must be reviewed by a diocesan review board. After receiving the nine-member board's recommendations, Diocese of Paterson Bishop Frank J. Rodimer recommended that the cases should be sent on to Rome.

There, a Vatican committee will decide whether to give permission for the diocese to try the cases in front of a diocesan council called a tribunal. A priest trained in canon law, called a "Promoter of Justice," will bring charges against the priests. All four of the priests have hired canon lawyers, who will help defend them before the tribunal.

The canon lawyers were unavailable for comment on Wednesday.

If a diocesan tribunal determines any of the priests to be guilty, they could be defrocked or permanently removed from ministry.

For one alleged victim, this news was encouraging.

"I've been waiting 40 years for this," said Cheryl Christopher, a Passaic woman who claims she was abused by Monsignor Dericks for a period of three years, starting in the early 1960s, when she was 14. She received a settlement from Dericks for $25,000 in 1994. She said she never thought she would see the 86-year-old-priest who was functioning only as a volunteer when she told the diocese brought to justice.

"It feels good to me that that whole group of people believed in me," she said, of the diocesan review board. "They did say that I was credible, that this was abuse, and that this could move on. He got away with a lot, he wasn't sent to prison. Now I feel like, thank God, he's still alive, and, thank God, he'll get some punishment. "

But Christopher said that while she feels justified that the board considered her testimony credible, she is worried that the tribunal will be unfair, because it is entirely composed of diocesan staff.

"I'm happy that it got this far, but I'm very cynical," she said.

The diocese has already defrocked one priest, James T. Hanley. He consented to his removal from the priesthood after more than 15 men accused him of abusing them when they were boys in a Mendham parish during the 1970s and '80s.

In addition, the Rev. William Cramer, who was most recently a chaplain at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson, was taken out of ministry last year under the new rules. Cramer admitted in court in 1988 to improperly touching two Sussex County brothers. He has not been defrocked but is deciding whether to appeal the bishop's decision to remove him, according to Thompson.

The case of Absalom Coutinho, a priest removed from duty after being accused of abusing minors in Morris and Hudson counties, has been referred to the Newark Archdiocese for review, Thompson said.

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