A special task force will investigate allegations of sexual abuse by priests and any potential cover-ups in the Catholic Church in New Jersey, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said Thursday.

The task force will investigate using subpoenas to compel testimony and produce documents. At a later date they will present evidence to a state grand jury, Grewal said. New York launched a similar investigation Thursday.

The New Jersey Catholic Conference, which represents the state's bishops on policy matters, told The Associated Press it welcomes the probe and will "fully cooperate."

A spokesperson for the Diocese of Camden, which covers much of South Jersey, did not return a request for comment from The Press of Atlantic City.

The task force in New Jersey will be led by former acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert D. Laurino, Grewal said.

The formation of the task force follows a report by a Pennsylvania grand jury that alleged more than 1,000 people were sexually abused by Roman Catholic priests in the state for more than 70 years. That investigation lasted several years and alleged a widespread cover-up among church leaders.

The Pennsylvania report included a former Cumberland County priest accused of molesting a 14-year-old boy in 1984 in a trailer in Cape May County.

John P. Connor, who formerly served as a Diocese of Camden priest at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Vineland, was assigned to Bishop Eustace Preparatory in Pennsauken Township, Camden County, at the time of the incident.

The report alleged the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office investigated the case but agreed to put Connor in a pretrial intervention program and erase the priest’s record in favor of internal discipline from the church.

Connor, 84, was stripped of his priestly duties in 2002 and is living in a facility in Missouri designed for priests with abusive backgrounds, and is restricted to a life of prayer and penance, according to previous reports.

The diocese also recently offered a settlement to the daughter of a man who claimed he was sexually abused by the Rev. Richard Gerbino, who in 1961 was the first pastor assigned to St. Francis of Assisi in Vineland.

The settlement, which was offered in April, is for $20,000 between the diocese and Annette Nestler, 54, of the Villas section of Lower Township. Nestler’s father, Mike Kissell, said he was repeatedly sexually abused by Gerbino in the 1960s. Kissell died by suicide on Dec. 31, 1970.

When she received the settlement, Nestler said there needed to be an investigation of the Catholic Church in New Jersey similar to the one in Pennsylvania.

Now there will be.

Patricia Teffenhard, who leads the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the state has worked toward creating a better system for survivors, and the investigation is a move in a positive direction.

In addition to investigating allegations of sexual abuse by priests and potential cover-ups, Laurino's task force will review existing agreements between the Catholic dioceses of New Jersey and state law enforcement, Grewal said.

In 2002, each of the state’s dioceses entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Attorney General’s Office and various county prosecutors’ offices that required the church to report potential cases of sexual abuse. The task force will determine whether the dioceses complied with these requirements and whether any additional action is necessary, Grewal said.

N.J. Catholic Conference Executive Director Patrick Brannigan said he's confident the attorney general will find the dioceses are in compliance with the memorandum.

"We believe cooperating with law enforcement is essential to restoring faith and trust," he said. "New Jersey is not Pennsylvania."

To help identify potential victims, Grewal has established a hotline to report allegations of sexual abuse by clergy. The hotline will be staffed 24/7. Call 855-363-6548.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact: 609-272-7260

JDeRosier@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPressDeRosier 

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