Following calls in the last month from prominent politicians for the church official’s resignation over his office’s handling of the Michael Fugee case, Newark Archbishop John Meyers recently defended his actions in allowing the accused former Wyckoff priest remain in the ministry.
Fugee, 52, was arrested in 2001, and in a statement made after questioning by Wyckoff police and county officials he admitted to groping a 14-year-old boy twice, during a "wrestling match" while on vacation with the family in a Virginia hotel and again at the boy’s home. The priest later recanted the confession, and a conviction on charges of sexual misconduct was overturned in 2006 due to a judge’s error.
In an interview published Tuesday by the National Catholic Register, Meyers said that the case held no “black-and-white” answers, and pointing to uncertainties remaining in the nature of Fugee’s initial confession, defended his office’s supervision of the priest after he returned to work.
“When the case went to court,” Meyers told the paper, “Father Fugee testified that he said what he did in the written statement by mistake at the end of three hours [of interrogation] because he was tired.”
Following Fugee’s release from prison, the Archdiocese of Newark concluded an agreement with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office that allowed the accused priest to continue in his ministries under the condition that he no longer have unsupervised contact with minors.
After reports surfaced last month that Fugee had continued to hear confessions from minors around New Jersey, politicians such as state senate president Stephen Sweeney and gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono called for Meyers’ resignation. Fugee was arrested in May for allegedly violating the court agreement.
Meyers said that after his return to the priesthood, Fugee was placed with priests who “knew his situation,” and that he heard confessions out in the open with adults present, only when last-minute personnel issues necessitated his help.
Still, he allowed that Fugee could have engaged in prohibited behavior without the knowledge of the archdiocese.
“There were activities that he was not permitted to do; unfortunately, the pastor permitted this,” Meyers said in the interview, though it is unclear who he referred to.
A priest and two youth ministers at St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck have resigned over the allegations that Fugee had continued interaction with minors.
Meyers asserted that a review board convened by his office aggressively scrutinized the evidence in Fugee’s case, and determined that under supervision the priest would not pose a danger. He said that the archdiocese would not have prohibited the activities Fugee is accused of had it known in advance.
“The review board did not give Father Fugee a clean bill of health,” Meyer said. “He engaged in activity that was ill advised but did not rise to the level of sexual abuse.”
“If he were to go outside the diocese to minister to young people,” he continued, “he still needed permission to do that, and he knew we would have told him, ‘No.’”
According to the archbishop, Fugee is again living at a rectory owned by the archdiocese, but he now ministers at a church that has no school or youth programs associated with it.
Meyers said that there are around 16 other pastors that the archdiocese has under similar supervision, but that the allegations involved in those cases are “decades old” and have been reported to prosecutors.
When asked if, in retrospect, he would still have approved the decision to return Fugee to the church, Meyers said that the “decision was appropriate at the time,” but that he wouldn’t again advocate the church shouldering the burden and liability of supervising an accused priest.
He would instead tell him: “Go back for a second trial and clear your name.”