N.J. priest barred from ministry over claim he sexually abused mentally disabled man in '90s

The Star-Ledger/November 8, 2013

By Mark Mueller

The pastor of a Middlesex County church has been barred from ministry indefinitely following an accusation that he sexually abused a developmentally disabled man in the 1990s.

In a letter read aloud at St. James the Less Church in Jamesburg last weekend, Metuchen Bishop Paul Bootkoski alerted parishioners to the allegation against the Rev. Kevin P. Duggan, 59.

Duggan, who has served at six parishes in the diocese, "adamantly denies these charges," Bootkoski wrote.

The claim was brought to the diocese in April by the accuser’s caretaker. In July, the alleged victim spoke with the Diocesan Review Board, a panel of lay people and clergy members who examine allegations of sex abuse.

That same month, Duggan took a leave of absence from the church for treatment of alcoholism, Bootkoski wrote. Duggan spent the next four months at Guest House, a Minnesota treatment center for Catholic clergy members with substance abuse problems.

He was scheduled to return to the parish soon, but the sex-abuse allegations have scuttled that plan, Bootkoski said. Duggan also needs more time to deal with his alcoholism, with which he has struggled for "many years," the bishop said.

"Even without these charges, Fr. Duggan needs to continue the work of strengthening his physical and emotional health before he can resume facing the workload and the daily stresses of pastoring a parish of nearly 1,700 households," Bootkoski wrote.

The church will continue to be led by an interim administrator, the Rev. Msgr. John B. Szymanksi.

Duggan was serving at St. James Parish in Woodbridge when the alleged incidents took place. The caretaker told The Star-Ledger Duggan fondled the man, then in his 20s, on at least two occasions on the church’s lower level, known as McCorristin Hall.

In both instances, she said, Duggan instructed the accuser to wait for him in the basement after Mass. The caretaker asked that her name be withheld to protect the man’s identity.

She said the accuser, who suffers from a neurological impairment and who has "the mind of a child," told a nurse about the alleged abuse during a hospitalization for emotional problems in April. The nurse immediately contacted police.

The caretaker also reached out to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office. She said she was told the agency could take no action because the alleged incidents took place too long ago. Sex crimes in New Jersey were subject to a statute of limitations until 1996.

The caretaker said she has no doubt the accuser, now 49, is telling the truth.

"I can’t project what I think he felt, but he doesn’t lie or make things up," she said. "After he did tell, it seemed like it was such a relief to him. This is obviously something he kept deep inside."

She said a representative of the diocese called her last week to inform her about Bootkoski’s letter. During that conversation, she said, she was told the review board found the accuser to be credible.

The alleged victim has accepted the diocese’s offer to pay for counseling, the caretaker said. She said the man’s family has not contemplated a lawsuit.

Though the accuser was an adult at the time of the alleged incidents, his mental impairment raises the question of whether the case should fall under the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the landmark document crafted by the nation’s bishops in response to the clergy sex abuse crisis.

In his letter, Bootkoski said the case "may or may not" fall under the charter, which requires that a priest be permanently removed from ministry for a single credible allegation of abuse. As a result, the bishop has referred the case to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"The diocese will then proceed according to their directions," Bootkoski wrote.

The bishop’s letter can be found on NJ.com, the online home of The Star-Ledger.

Until the matter is resolved, Duggan may not serve as a priest or wear clerical garb. Erin Friedlander, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said the complaint is the first of a sexual nature against Duggan.

The priest has been the subject of other complaints, mainly stemming from his drinking, parishioners said.

Veronica Kreutzer, a longtime member of the parish, said Duggan sometimes yelled in drunken rages, verbally abused people and made a spectacle of himself during Masses, slurring and stumbling at the altar.

"It’s just really been a mess, and the people of St. James have been without a leader," she said.

In addition to the Jamesburg and Woodbridge churches, Duggan has served at parishes in North Plainfield, Old Bridge, South River and South Amboy.

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