New Jersey Bishop Expresses Sorrow and Vows to Handle Abuse Claims Expediently

April 6, 2002


In a pastoral letter to be printed in church bulletins
throughout central New Jersey tomorrow, the new bishop of
the Diocese of Metuchen expresses his "heartfelt sorrow for
the unimaginable pain" that has resulted from child abuse
by a few priests in the Roman Catholic Church.

And in Suffolk County, District Attorney Thomas J. Spota
plans to impanel a special grand jury - one of the first in
the nation - to investigate such allegations, New York
State officials confirmed yesterday after Newsday reported
the plan.

In his letter to 108 parishes in Middlesex, Somerset,
Hunterdon and Warren Counties, the Metuchen bishop, Paul G.
Bootkoski, vows to handle any future allegations of abuse
against priests in an "immediate, legal, responsible and
credible manner." Joanne Ward, a spokeswoman for the
diocese, said the bishop would review personnel records to
determine if there were any unaddressed allegations from
the past.

The letter comes just over two weeks after Bishop Bootkoski
was installed, and it is the second time since then that he
has publicly addressed the issue of pedophile priests. In
all his comments, Bishop Bootkoski has stressed that
procedures in place in New Jersey since 1985 are sufficient
to address concerns if followed stringently. Under those
procedures and New Jersey law, church officials are
required to pass along reports of child sexual abuse to the
state Division of Youth and Family Services, which would
then decide whether to tell law enforcement authorities.

The Metuchen Diocese has had two recent cases that led to
criminal charges: the Rev. Michael Santillo was sentenced
in 1999 to 10 years in prison for abusing three altar boys
in Perth Amboy, but died in 2000 after serving part of his
sentence. The other priest, the Rev. John M. Banko, is
awaiting trial on charges that he assaulted an 11-year-old
boy in Milford eight years ago.

The bishop's promises of greater vigilance, swift justice
and a review of church records for unaddressed abuse
allegations echo similar pledges from the state's five
other Catholic dioceses. But it fell short of moves in
dioceses in the New York region, where some church
officials have vowed to hand names of accused priests over
to prosecutors and the public, appeal publicly to victims
to come forward and set up advisory groups to guide their
handling of such cases.

Msgr. John B. Szymanski, pastor of the St. Thomas the
Apostle Catholic Church in Old Bridge, in the Metuchen
Diocese, said the bishop's recent comments showed the
necessary leadership by emphasizing that he would address
the problem right away. "He knows that people have a lot of
concerns and questions, and I think the priests are happy
about his approach as well," he said.

But Stephen Rubino, a Margate lawyer who has represented
dozens of victims in cases of sexual abuse brought against
priests, said the only way the church could restore
confidence was by the forwarding records of allegations to
local prosecutors for investigation and review.

"The bishop's statement comes up terribly short," he said,
"because there is no independent verification."

In Suffolk County, the district attorney's office would not
comment on the report that it would seek to convene a
special grand jury.

But David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the State Office of
Court Administration, said the office had received Suffolk
County's request for a grand jury, "and it is going through
the appropriate channels for signature and approval."

Regular grand juries typically hear various unrelated
cases, and do not require special approval. But approval
from the state is required for a special grand jury, which
may be formed to focus on a particular case or issue.
Approvals are generally granted, Mr. Bookstaver said.