Victims’ advocates hope pope looks into Newark archbishop
Cleric accused of sheltering abusive priests
NEW YORK — Priests, nuns, and canon lawyers who advocate for molestation victims urged Pope Francis on Wednesday to use the new Vatican tribunal he formed on negligent bishops to investigate the archbishop of Newark, who has long been accused of sheltering abusive priests.
The plea comes as Francis prepares for his first visit to the United States in September, a trip that will take place against the backdrop of the broad unfinished business of the molestation scandal. The crisis erupted in 2002 with the case of one pedophile priest in the Archdiocese of Boston before spreading nationwide, then engulfing the Roman Catholic Church.
The advocates, who call themselves the Catholic Whistleblowers, said they will present evidence to the Vatican that Archbishop John Myers has been persistently hostile toward people who come forward with abuse allegations, and had left guilty clerics in parishes in the Newark Archdiocese and in his post as bishop of Peoria, Ill.
Myers has repeatedly defended his record, noting that he has removed many guilty priests, but he has been dogged by revelations about cases bungled on his watch in both states.
‘‘When Pope Francis last month announced the new tribunal, instantly — within 24 hours — we were saying, ‘Myers has to be one,’ ’’ said the Rev. James Connell, a canon lawyer and retired priest from Milwaukee, part of the whistle-blower group. ‘‘It’s a place to start.’’
Three American dioceses — Gallup, N.M.; Milwaukee; and St. Paul and Minneapolis — are in bankruptcy court trying to limit settlements with victims and preserve church assets; the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is being prosecuted on charges of failing to protect children from a priest who was convicted, and the Diocese of Honolulu is facing a raft of new claims after Hawaii lawmakers temporarily abolished time limits on lawsuits over child sex abuse.
Francesco Cesareo, president of Assumption College in Worcester and head of the National Review Board, a panel formed by the US bishops to monitor child safety in dioceses, said accountability for bishops is the most pressing issue for restoring trust, after revelations that church leaders moved guilty clerics from parish to parish for decades without warning parents or police.
Hundreds of accused clergymen have been barred from serving as priests under the reforms the US bishops enacted after intense public pressure in 2002, but there has been no direct penalty for bishops who covered up allegations and kept the clerics on the job.
A few prelates have stepped down. Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., resigned last April, three years after he was convicted of failure to report suspected child abuse by a now-imprisoned priest.
Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis also resigned days after the Vatican announced the tribunal and child endangerment charges were filed against the archdiocese.
In Newark, Jim Goodness, a spokesman for Myers, said the archbishop has been ‘‘very aggressive’’ in pursuing abuse claims and has removed 19 accused priests from ministry since he was installed in Newark in 2002.
But the archbishop came under heavy criticism in 2013 after news reports that now defrocked priest Michael Fugee, accused of groping a teenage boy, attended youth retreats and heard confessions from minors despite an agreement with prosecutors and an archdiocesan official barring him from contact with minors.
The archdiocese also had privately allowed another priest who had been removed over molestation claims to live in the rectory of a church with a school and youth groups.
In Peoria, Larry and Helen Rainforth, whose son Lance was among 13 people who received settlements from that diocese over abuse by former priest Norman Goodman, said Myers threatened people who came forward with libel lawsuits and excommunication.
Within about two months of taking over from Myers in Illinois, Bishop Daniel Jenky ousted several accused priests, a development that Connell and others point to as evidence of negligence on the part of Myers.
Francis’ decision last month to form the tribunal was his biggest step yet toward tackling that issue. The pope has said he takes personal responsibility for the ‘‘evil’’ of priests who raped children.