A Roman Catholic priest has been removed as pastor of a West Side parish because he had a sexual relationship with an adolescent boy in the 1970s.
Monsignor Joseph N. Fete, pastor of St. Margaret of Cortona Church on N. Hague Avenue, has been assigned to a newly created position: director of ecumenical affairs for the Columbus Catholic Diocese, according to a statement issued yesterday by Bishop James A. Griffin.
Fete, 54, could not be located for comment yesterday. Griffin was out of town and unavailable for questions, said Tom Berg, diocesan spokesman.
It is the first such case acknowledged by the diocese since the Roman Catholic Church came under fire this year for covering up allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
In other Ohio dioceses, priests have been suspended and archdiocesan records subpoenaed for a grand-jury investigation. The Youngstown Diocese has acknowledged that two former priests who were accused of molesting children were transferred to other dioceses.
Griffin’s statement yesterday said Fete was being moved “to meet any potential concern that might be raised, and despite my firm personal conviction that Monsignor Fete poses no threat whatsoever as pastor.”
With the move, the statement said, “I have a deep belief that there is no priest in the Diocese of Columbus who is in an assignment which presents a danger to any minor.”
The statement said the relationship began in 1976 and ended in 1979. At the time, Fete was an associate pastor of St. Joseph Cathedral, which is Downtown.
Griffin, the statement said, became aware of the relationship three years ago.
Paul D. Ritter, attorney for the diocese, said he was contacted in 1999 by an attorney for the man with whom Fete had had the relationship, and they negotiated a financial settlement. Fete was rector of the cathedral from 1992 to 2000.
Ritter would not reveal the settlement amount, citing an agreement by both parties not to discuss details.
No lawsuit was filed.
The diocese, which encompasses 23 counties mostly in central and southern Ohio, has said little about incidents of sexual abuse involving priests since the controversy erupted in Boston.
Asked whether Fete admitted to the relationship when the matter was settled, Ritter would say only, “The matter was resolved in 1999, so you can conclude that we felt it was a matter that should be resolved in 1999 and we resolved it.”
Asked why Griffin did not take action three years ago, when he became aware of Fete’s actions, Ritter said that yesterday’s diocesan statement “pretty much said the bishop had complete confidence in Monsignor Fete.”
In a statement issued after the national controversy surfaced, Griffin said he “promptly reported allegations to the proper authorities.”
Ritter said the Fete case was not reported to authorities in 1999 because, “It wasn’t required to be reported. It was a claim made by an adult that had occurred 20-some years ago.”
Berg said Fete’s case was reported in late March to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien’s office. It was included with information about allegations of sexual misconduct by priests that the diocese turned over to O’Brien at that time, he said.
O’Brien could not be reached for comment last night.
The information also was reported to Franklin County Children Services in a meeting this week, Berg said.
In August 2000, after the confidential settlement had been reached, Fete was replaced as cathedral rector. The diocese said at the time that Fete would be doing postgraduate work in Jerusalem for several months.
Berg said yesterday that Fete underwent treatment, but Berg did not know where or when.
In yesterday’s statement, Griffin reiterated the point he made in two earlier statements that no criminal or civil cases concerning abuse are pending against any diocesan priest. But the latest statement said that one case may be forthcoming.
Fete had been pastor of St. Margaret since last July. The parish has 600 families.
In a letter dated April 17, he told parishioners that he would be leaving to become director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs. He was chosen for the job, he said, because of his experience in diocesan administration and in seminary teaching, his involvement with other clergy members while he was cathedral rector, and his studies in the Middle East.
He did not mention the relationship with the adolescent.
Parishioners contacted yesterday expressed surprise at the revelation about Fete.
“I don’t know about his problem because that’s from the past, and obviously nobody has talked about it at all,” member Larry Pishitelli said. “It’s a big shock.”
Pishitelli said Fete at times was inaccessible but overall was a good pastor.
“He’s been excellent with us,” he said. “We’ve talked to him on several different things. He’s involved; he’s very supportive of all the groups.”
Mary D’Ippolito, a longtime member, said she was unaware of Fete’s past.
She said she is not bothered that Fete is being allowed to remain in a position with the diocese, “as long as he is not with the children.”
The bishop is expected to address the sex scandal Monday when he speaks to a meeting of all diocesan priests at the Pontifical College Josephinum on the Far North Side. The clergy conferences are held twice a year; Monday’s is the regular spring meeting.