A Catholic priest in New Jersey pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of indecently assaulting three children under 14 in Springfield in the 1980s, about 20 years before his ordination, according to prosecutors and court records.
Rev. Patrick Kuffner, 72, entered his plea in Hampden Superior Court to three counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14, legal filings show. Bail was set at $50,000, and his lawyer didn’t immediately respond to telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment.
Kuffner was initially arrested Nov. 20 in New Jersey and taken into custody by Massachusetts State Police on Wednesday, officials said.
Prosecutors say Kuffner, who became a priest in 2002, allegedly assaulted the youths while chaperoning a trip to Springfield in the early 1980s. Investigators were initially contacted after one alleged victim recognized Kuffner at a funeral while standing in line to receive communion, Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni’s office said in a statement.
The alleged victim confronted Kuffner and later reported the past incident to law enforcement, prosecutors said.
“There is no greater purpose for law enforcement than the protection of children,” Gulluni said in the statement. "We continue to ask the public to please report any instances of abuse, both past and present, for appropriate investigation. Crimes, such as those alleged, should not go unreported or unpunished.”
Bishop James F. Checchio of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Metuchen in New Jersey had announced in February 2018 that Kuffner was being placed on leave from his post as pastor of Our Lady of Mount Virgin in light of the allegations.
At the time of the alleged assaults, Kuffner was a layman and teaching on Staten Island, N.Y.
“As I am sure you will be, I am deeply shocked and saddened at this development, and I have a heavy heart for the individuals who came forward after many years of having carried such a tremendous burden,” Checchio wrote in a letter to parishioners at the time. “With that said, I have rechecked our records and there was nothing whatsoever in the background checks required of all seminarians and priests, or in Fr. Kuffner’s behavior in his two priestly assignments, to suggest he could be capable of such horrendous actions. There has never been any indication of these types of actions during his time as a priest either. I, of course, take these charges extremely seriously.”
Tara Smith, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said Thursday via e-mail that Kuffner remains on leave and “cannot function as a priest. No cleric in the Diocese of Metuchen who has had a credible accusation of child sexual abuse is in active ministry.”
Anthony P. Kearns III, another spokesperson for the diocese who also serves as its chancellor, said in a statement released at the time of Kuffner’s arrest in November that the diocese took swift action once the allegations against Kuffner came to light.
"Once we learned of the allegations, we immediately reported them to the Middlesex County [N.J.] Prosecutor’s Office, which then conducted an initial investigation and subsequently referred the matter to the Hampden County Prosecutor’s Office in MA,” Kearns said. “The diocese, as a matter of a strictly adhered to policy, reports every accusation to the appropriate county prosecutor’s office, regardless of when or how long ago the abuse is alleged to have occurred and whether or not the accused is living or deceased.”
Kuffner is due back in court Dec. 17 for a "full bail hearing,” Gulluni’s office said.