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Paterson Diocese To Put Priest On Trial

Accused of abusing a teen in 1960s, clergyman faces proceeding ordered by the Vatican

Jan 8, 2004 | Star Ledger The Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson is preparing to hold what officials say will be New Jersey's first church-run trial of a priest accused of sexually abusing a child.

The Rev. James A.D. Smith, 72, a diocesan priest for nearly 50 years, is accused of molesting a teenager in the 1960s, while working at Our Lady of Victories Church in Paterson. The trial, being held at the direction of the Vatican, will be conducted under the church's Code of Canon Law.

Since January 2002, when reports of clergy sex abuse of children gained national attention and led others to come forward with decades-old allegations, bishops have removed hundreds of accused priests from church positions. Most cases have not yet involved church trials, which are among the last steps in the long process of formally dismissing a priest.

The Paterson Diocese is awaiting instruction from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about other suspended priests facing accusations deemed credible.

Also last month, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith told the Paterson Diocese not to put the Rev. John Dericks, 83, on trial for alleged sex abuse that dates to the 1960s because of his age, diocese spokeswoman Marianna Thompson said yesterday.

The Vatican has said Paterson Bishop Frank Rodimer "may instruct (Dericks) on how he shall live his life," Thompson said. "Bishop Rodimer is taking time for prayer and meditation before giving these instructions."

When the priests' accusers came forward in 2002, criminal statutes of limitation had expired, as had statutes of limitation under canon law, which generally require that a victim register a charge within 10 years after turning 18. But the Vatican has instructed U.S. bishops to request exemptions from Rome so older charges could be adjudicated.

Smith's accuser has said, through a lawyer, that the priest molested him repeatedly and that he came forward in August 2002 after learning that Smith worked as associate pastor at St. Therese Roman Catholic School in the Succasunna section of Roxbury.

Smith, who could not be reached for comment, has denied the accusation, Thompson said, adding that church officials have not set a timetable for his trial.

The diocese will be represented at trial by the Rev. Mark Condon, who will hold the official position of "promoter of justice" at the proceeding and serve as the equivalent of a prosecutor. Smith will have his own canon lawyer, the Rev. John Catoir. Catoir was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Church trials or canonical trials are different from secular trials. For example, there are no juries and usually a tribunal of three canon lawyers serves as judges and decides cases. Canonical trials are closed to the public, and no one is cross-examined. The tribunal decides what questions to ask witnesses, canon lawyers said yesterday.

Canon law, which has developed throughout Christianity's history, was not formally codified until 1917, said the Rev. Arthur Espelage, executive director of the Canon Law Society of America.

Canonical trials are not uncommon in the United States. Technically, the process of a marriage annulment is a canonical trial against the validity of a marriage, said the Rev. Ken Lasch, a canon lawyer and pastor at St. Joseph's Church in Mendham, who once successfully represented a priest accused of violating rules of confession.

Dericks, 87, a former pastor at parishes in Pequannock and Morristown, was accused of abusing a girl in the 1960s. About 10 years ago, he agreed to pay her $25,000 in a legal settlement.

Buddy Cotton, president of the New Jersey chapter of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said that in the absence of a trial, Rodimer should permanently suspend Dericks from ministry, given the zero-tolerance policy toward abusive priests that bishops adopted in 2002.

"If (Rodimer) lets (Dericks) off the hook for this after that monster gave her $25,000 it goes to show there's no way anyone should trust clerics prosecuting clerics," Cotton said.

Dericks was retired and living in Andover when he was told in 2002 to stop celebrating Mass pending a review of the charges. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.

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