Priests, nuns and canon lawyers who advocate for molestation victims have urged Pope Francis to use the new Vatican tribunal he formed on negligent bishops to investigate the archbishop of Newark, N.J., who has long been accused of sheltering abusive priests.
The plea comes as Francis prepares for his first visit to the U.S. 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 previous 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, who is part of the whistleblower group. “It’s a place to start.”
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Hundreds of accused clergymen have been barred from serving as priests under the reforms the U.S. bishops enacted following 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 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 this year — just days after the Vatican announced the new tribunal and after prosecutors filed child endangerment charges against the archdiocese. Nienstedt said he wanted to give the archdiocese a “new beginning.” Nienstedt is also accused of misconduct with adults. He said he left his post with “a clear conscience.”
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 it was reported that now defrocked priest Michael Fugee, who had been 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.
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 Myers’ negligence. (Goodness said he did not have information about specific claims from Peoria.)
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said it was “premature” to comment on what cases would be considered by the tribunal, which he said has not yet been organized.
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. He formed an advisory commission on protecting young people led by Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley and including abuse victims. A year ago, he met with European victims at the Vatican, begging for their forgiveness.