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Paterson Diocese To Try 4 Priests On Abuse Charges

Church Review Board Passes Allegations Against Clerics To Tribunal

Jan 10, 2003 | The Star-Ledger The Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson has begun preparations for church trials in the cases of four priests who have decided to fight charges that they sexually abused minors, diocesan officials said yesterday.

A spokeswoman for Paterson Bishop Frank Rodimer said the diocese's review board, which is composed of five lay persons, one victim of abuse and two priests, conducted a preliminary inquiry into the allegations levied last year and deemed them credible.

"They were found adequately credible to be passed on to a tribunal," or church court, said Marianna Thompson.

Thompson said local prosecutors in the diocese, which comprises Morris, Passaic and Sussex counties, could not pursue the cases criminally because the incidents allegedly took place decades ago and were past the statute of limitations. So the cases were returned to the diocese for action.

The priests involved are the Rev. Ralph Sodano, who was removed from his post at Our Lady of the Lake in Washington Township; the Rev. Alan Stepien, who was removed as pastor of St. Mark the Evangelist in Long Valley; the Rev. James A.D. Smith, who was removed as an assistant priest at St. Therese in Roxbury; and Monsignor John Henry Dericks, a former pastor at parishes in Pequannock and Morristown who paid $25,000 in a legal settlement almost 10 years ago to a woman who accused him of abusing her when she was a child.

Dericks is retired and living in Andover, but late last year the diocese told him to stop saying Mass at a local parish pending a review of the charges.

The whereabouts of the four were not known and efforts to reach the canon lawyer representing several of them were unsuccessful yesterday.

The cases involving the four clerics are part of a growing wave of church trials that followed the approval last fall by the nation's bishops and the Vatican of a new policy to discipline and in most cases defrock molesting clerics.

The majority of the approximately 325 priests suspended nationwide in the wake of revelations that began a year ago in Boston have admitted to wrongdoing and have not fought efforts to sanction or defrock them, a process formally known as "laicizing."

But some priests have decided to fight the charges under the church's Code of Canon Law. That necessitates a trial before a tribunal of three to five judges, all of them priests appointed by the bishop.

Almost all of the recently reported abuse cases from around the country are well past the criminal statute of limitations, which in New Jersey falls five years after the victim turns 18, and so the only means for punishing abusers is through the church's internal procedures.

Most of the abuse cases -- including the four in Paterson -- are also past the statute of limitations in the church's canon law, which generally requires that a victim register a charge within 10 years after turning 18. The Paterson allegations, like the vast majority of others around the country, surfaced during the past year as publicity about the issue emboldened many people to pursue charges they had left buried for decades.

The Vatican, however, has instructed the U.S. bishops to request an exemption from the statute of limitations so that even older charges can be adjudicated, and Thompson said yesterday she believes Rome will grant the exemption.

"The Holy See has indicated that they are most anxious to cooperate in this process," she said. "They understand how anxious everyone must be to resolve it the victim-survivors, the priests, all of us."

The Vatican has reserved the right to conduct the trials under its own auspices, but indicated it would only do so in the case of notorious offenders or if a diocese does not have the necessary tribunal to conduct such a case.

Paterson has a tribunal, and although it deals almost exclusively with marriage annulments, Thompson said church officials expect the trials will take place in New Jersey. But she said there is no timetable for the complicated process.

Victims advocates have voiced deep skepticism about the tribunal system.

"The process is managed strictly by those who wear the Roman collar," said Mark Serrano, a spokesman for SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the largest advocacy group for victims. "Frankly, the process certainly seems to fulfill the mission of doing what is in the best interests of the church."

Serrano said he was ambivalent as to whether victims should cooperate in the tribunals. "This is uncharted territory for us," he said of the newly instituted process.

But he said that he would advise victims to cooperate as long as they brought along someone they trust to the tribunal depositions "so that they are not vulnerable."

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