The recent release by New Jersey’s Roman Catholic dioceses of a list of 188 priests and deacons credibly accused of sexually abusing children brought heartbreak anew. Innocents were harmfully exploited for decades, and few of the accused faced anything like justice.
Putting together and releasing the list, however, was also a good if much-belated start for New Jersey’s five dioceses to finally come clean about their history of failing to protect children and even covering up cases of abuse. Much more must be done to properly deal not only with the shameful past, but to establish policies and procedures to ensure the well-being of children will never again be secondary to that of clergy and the church’s reputation.
Few new cases for prosecution or other action are likely from the list. For example, of the 47 Camden diocese clergy members named with ties to Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, 33 are dead and 12 already removed from the ministry.
At least one prominent monsignor, Joseph Punderson of the Trenton diocese, was forced to resign late last year as the list was prepared. A senior official of the Vatican’s highest court, he had been credibly accused in 2003 of sexually abusing a minor years before and offered to resign in 2004, but was allowed to keep working with restrictions on his public acts of ministry, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
The list of accused clergy resulted from a review of Roman Catholic files in New Jersey announced in November by Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, archbishop of Newark. The dioceses were spurred by and undertook the review in coordination with the Clergy Abuse Task Force formed in September by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.
The dioceses say they are committed to keep reporting credible allegations of abuse and to cooperate fully with the state task force. Grewal said he hoped that spirit of cooperation extended to his office’s requests for records and information.
In November, the Attorney General’s Office began issuing subpoenas to the dioceses. That was a key part of Pennsylvania’s investigation that resulted in a grand jury report alleging more than 1,000 people were victimized by at least 300 priests — and prompted investigations in New Jersey and at least seven other states.
Too bad Roman Catholic officials needed pressure from the states to do their own comprehensive and transparent self-assessments. The reputational harm from that will take a long time to heal.
The church’s best path now for restoring the faith of its members and the public is clear. It must demonstrate convincingly that it has established structures and practices sufficient to guarantee that the despicable preying upon children by adults will be minimized from now on and dealt with openly and severely if it occurs.
Many other organizations already do so, and the Roman Catholic Church should have joined them long ago.