A Bergen County Roman Catholic priest was found guilty yesterday of aggravated sexual contact for groping a teenage boy during wrestling horseplay several times over a two-year period.
The verdict clearly shook the Rev. Michael Fugee, 43, and a group of supporters from the Wyckoff parish where he had served, who wept along with him moments after the jury announced its decision.
“We feel betrayed by the system, and by the family of the boy who brought the charges,” said Gail Edelman, a cousin of Fugee.
The former associate pastor at St. Elizabeth Church in Wyckoff is the second priest in New Jersey to be convicted of a sex crime since a national scandal involving abuse by Catholic priests erupted early last year.
Fugee’s attorney, Brian Neary, said his client would appeal. Neary said he was troubled that the jury found Fugee guilty of criminal sexual contact but not guilty on a child endangerment charge related to the same incidents.
“We’re extremely disappointed and baffled, when two charges regarding the same conduct came up with different verdicts,” said Neary.
Criminal sexual contact carries a maximum five-year sentence, but Fugee, who is on administrative leave from the Archdiocese of Newark, most likely will not go to prison because he has no prior convictions, according to authorities. He is free on $10,000 bail.
Neary said the priest is worried about the likelihood that he will be ousted from the ministry.
Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Demetra Maurice said she was pleased with the jury’s decision.
“I think with any sex crime case, when you’re dealing with a victim, you’re talking about a violation of trust, and obviously, because this was a Catholic priest, the trust violation goes to a deeper level,” Maurice said.
She said the jury’s verdict was not inconsistent, saying there is a difference in intent implied in the two charges.
The jury found the priest guilty of grabbing the crotch of the teenage parishioner during five different wrestling encounters in 1999 and 2000.
When he was arrested in March 2001, Fugee admitted to authorities that he groped the boy, according to testimony in the trial. But Fugee later testified that he was intimidated by the three investigators questioning him and offered a false confession so he could leave.
“His testimony was coerced out of him,” Neary said. “He knew he wasn’t going to be released by the police until he agreed to tell them what they wanted to hear.”
Fugee’s accuser, who also took the witness stand, claimed Fugee would touch his crotch while they were wrestling, four times in the presence of family members or friends in his living room in Wyckoff, and once in a hotel where he, his mother and the priest were staying on a vacation. “He would grab me with his arm and somehow his hand would linger across my crotch,” the teenager told the jury.
The teenager said he thought nothing of the touching at first, but later asked the priest to stop wrestling him. He described how his parents were divorced, his mother befriended Fugee, and he felt that it would ruin his mother’s friendship with the priest, and that his father would overreact if he talked about Fugee’s conduct.
“I was kind of embarrassed by the whole thing. I didn’t want to be the kid up against the church,” the boy said.
Neary urged the jurors to consider that the wrestling incidents occurred during family gatherings, and noted that the boy was rattled by “the chaos” of his parents’ divorce.
After the verdict, Fugee, a tall man sporting a crew cut, blue suit and red tie, slumped in tears on a bench outside Superior Court Judge Charles J. Walsh’s courtroom in Hackensack.
His lawyer said the priest was too distraught and exhausted to talk to reporters.
The priest’s supporters were in shock. Debra McDonald, of Franklin Lakes, whose son, Anthony, was a character witness in the case, said the priest had become the victim.
“Timing is everything and this came up in a climate fraught with anxiety over the church,” McDonald said.
“But this is a man, not a church,” McDonald said. “An innocent man.”