New Jersey’s Attorney General Gurbir Grewal on Thursday launched an investigation into potential sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the state, including whether church officials are honoring a 16-year old agreement to immediately report abuse allegations to county prosecutors.
As part of this effort, Grewal created a task force to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by clergy within the Catholic dioceses of New Jersey and any efforts to cover up such abuse. He also established a 24-hour clergy-abuse hotline — 855-363-6548 — which victims can call to report abuse.
The investigation is in response to last month’s report from a Pennsylvania grand jury alleging more than 1,000 cases of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in that state over seven decades and actions by church leaders to cover up the actions.
“I was deeply troubled to read the allegations contained in last month’s Pennsylvania grand jury report,” Grewal said in a statement. “The report revealed that sexual assaults on children — and efforts to cover up such assaults — were far more widespread in Pennsylvania than we ever thought possible. We owe it to the people of New Jersey to find out whether the same thing happened here. If it did, we will take action against those responsible.”
A New Jersey connection
That report mentioned several priests who had ministered in New Jersey and had been accused of abuse. Three were arrested, with one serving 10 years in prison, another receiving Pretrial Intervention (PTI), and the third dying before his trial. The fourth, the Rev. A. Gregory Uhrig, was placed on leave for two-and-a-half years between 2010 and 2013 and, according to the Diocese of Metuchen, reinstated to ministry after an investigation for the diocese and a canonical trial found the allegation “to be not proven.”
Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), who had called for an investigation into abuse in New Jersey after the Pennsylvania report implicated priests with ties to the state, applauded Grewal’s announcement.
“The attorney general is taking the right action,” Vitale said in a statement. “There is already evidence that priests in New Jersey were involved in the abuses in Pennsylvania… Any case of sexual abuse and any attempt to cover up these crimes that have occurred in New Jersey must be investigated and, whenever possible, prosecuted. The victims have often been vulnerable children, the abusers have been men vested with religious authority, and those who have acted to shield them have been church officials who have betrayed their moral responsibilities.”
Catholic officials will cooperate
New Jersey Catholic officials said they will do all they can to assist in the investigation.
“We welcome the attorney general’s investigation, and will cooperate fully,” said Pat Brannigan of the New Jersey Catholic Conference. “We believe cooperating with law enforcement is essential to restoring faith and trust … We will remain vigilant to ensure the safety of every child we serve.”
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, whose former head Theodore McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals two months ago after an investigation found credible allegations he had sexually abused a teenager 47 years ago while a priest in New York, also pledged the cooperation of officials serving in the most populous diocese in the state.
“The archdiocese certainly will cooperate with the work of the task force, especially as it concerns compliance since 2002 with the memorandum of understanding with the attorney general and the county prosecutors to report accusations to law enforcement,” said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese, which covers Bergen, Essex, Hudson, and Union counties.
All five Catholic dioceses in the state — Newark, Paterson, Metuchen, Trenton, and Camden — signed an MOU that requires them to report to the appropriate county prosecutor all allegations of crimes of a sexual nature, although in practice, church officials say they report crimes of all kinds promptly to prosecutors.
Determining whether the dioceses have complied with that memorandum is one job for the task force being headed by former acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert D. Laurino. An experienced sex-crimes prosecutor, Laurino will oversee a team of detectives and prosecutors from county prosecutors’ offices across the state and from the state Division of Criminal Justice. The task force has the power to subpoena witnesses and present evidence to a state grand jury.
“We want victims to know that we stand ready to investigate their cases and will do everything in our power to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice,” said Veronica Allende, director of the division. “The key is obtaining adequate evidence, and we urge anyone with information about sexual abuse by members of the clergy to contact us confidentially through our new hotline.”
The Catholic Church in New Jersey has taken other steps to try to prevent abuse, according to a document provided by Goodness. In addition to “promptly” reporting allegations of abuse, the dioceses conduct background checks for all parish personnel who have contact with minors, train all workers and volunteers in sexual-abuse awareness and prevention, and have a victim assistance coordinator available to counsel those who have suffered abuse. The document states that the state’s dioceses have paid out close to $50 million in settlements to victims.
Grewal’s action came on the same day New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood subpoenaed the eight dioceses in that state as part of an ongoing investigation into how the church reviewed allegations of sexual abuse, according to news reports.
“No person is above the law and no institution is immune from accountability,” Grewal said. “We will devote whatever resources are necessary to uncover the truth and bring justice to victims … We will work to ensure that our investigation in New Jersey is done professionally and thoroughly.”