Priest at center of Newark Archdiocese scandal quits ministry

( The Roman Catholic priest at the center of a public furor enveloping Newark Archbishop John J. Myers has resigned from ministry, a spokesman for the archdiocese said tonight.

The Rev. Michael Fugee, who attended youth retreats and heard confessions from minors in defiance of a lifetime ban on such behavior, submitted his request to leave ministry this afternoon, said the spokesman, Jim Goodness. Myers promptly accepted the resignation, Goodness said.

Fugee, 52, remains a priest but no longer has authority to say Mass, perform sacramental work or represent himself as an active priest, Goodness said. It was not immediately clear if Fugee or Myers would petition the Vatican to remove him from the priesthood altogether, a process known as laicization.

Asked if Myers had requested that Fugee step aside, Goodness said, “I only know that he offered to leave ministry and the archbishop accepted.”

Under terms of a 2007 agreement with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, Fugee is not permitted to have unsupervised contact with children, minister to children or hold any position in which children are involved.

The agreement grew out of Fugee’s 2003 conviction on charges he fondled the genitals of a teenage boy on two occasions. Three years later, an appellate panel vacated the verdict, ruling the trial judge should not have allowed jurors to hear the part of Fugee’s confession in which he described himself as homosexual or bisexual.

The rest of the confession, in which Fugee acknowledged the acts with the teen sexually excited him and that he had committed a “violation,” was not called into question.

To avoid retrial, Fugee entered a rehabilitation program, underwent counseling for sex offenders and signed the memorandum of understanding with the prosecutor’s office.

Earlier this week, The Star-Ledger reported Fugee had violated that agreement, openly engaging in youth group activities at St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck. Fugee is longtime friends with the church’s youth ministers, Michael and Amy Lenehan.

Since the disclosure, Goodness has argued that Fugee did not violate the agreement because he was under the supervision of the youth ministers or other priests.

Tonight, the spokesman sought to clarify his statements, saying that while it was “good” Fugee was under supervision, the priest did not seek permission from the archdiocese before participating in youth activities.

“He engaged in activities that the archdiocese was not aware of and that were not approved by us, and we would never have approved them because they are all in conflict with the memorandum of understanding,” Goodness said.

Fugee, the spokesman added, acknowledged to Myers that he violated terms of the document, an admission that could lead to more trouble for him down the line.

The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into Fugee when The Star-Ledger alerted the agency late last week. Assistant Prosecutor Demetra Maurice, who authored the agreement, told the newspaper Fugee could face civil penalties, criminal charges or both.

Goodness said he believed Fugee continued to live within the archdiocese tonight, but the spokesman said it was not clear if he would continue to do so. The archdiocese is comprised of Essex, Union, Hudson and Bergen counties.

Fugee, who has not been made available for comment, had been named to administrative roles in recent years, first as director of the Office of the Propagation of the Faith, a fundraising position to support missionary work.

More recently, Myers appointed him co-director of the Office of Continuing Education and Ongoing Formation of Priests, drawing criticism from advocates for victims of clergy sex abuse.

The latest disclosures — that Fugee had traveled with members of the St. Mary’s youth group to Canada and attended retreats in Marlboro and along Lake Hopatcong — ignited a new firestorm, particularly after the archdiocese strenuously defended his actions as within the scope of the agreement with law enforcement.

Advocates, joined by several lawmakers, called for Myers to resign, and rank-and-file Catholics inundated the archdiocese with letters and phone calls of protest.

That criticism didn’t diminish tonight despite Fugee’s resignation.

“Father Fugee should have been fired and removed from ministry by Archbishop Myers years ago, not simply allowed to resign today,” said Mark Crawford, New Jersey director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national advocacy and support group. “There must be consequences for those that enabled his continued access to children.

“If the Archbishop went to such great lengths to protect Father Fugee, then it’s likely he may be protecting others,” Crawford said. “He has failed to be transparent, open and honest, and for that Archbishop Myers must step down.”

Robert Hoatson, a former priest who heads the support group Road to Recovery, joined in that call.

“We welcome Father Fugee’s resignation. Its long overdue,” Hoatson said. “However, it does not relieve the archdiocese of the absolute mismanagement of this issue, and Archbishop Myers needs to do the same thing Father Fugee did. He needs to resign.”