Essex County priest, teacher, accused of exploiting boys

The Star-Ledger, New Jersey/October 16, 2011

Newark -- For nearly two decades, he was known as Father John, the Roman Catholic priest who passed out skimpy, tight-fitting bathing suits to young wrestlers and snapped pictures by the thousands.

Sometimes, he'd join in the bouts, donning a Speedo himself and grappling with teenage boys, one accuser said.

Amid claims of inappropriate conduct — and after a months-long stay at a treatment center for troubled clergy members — the Rev. John M. Capparelli was suspended from ministry by the Archdiocese of Newark in 1992.

He later started a fetish website that sold videos of buff young men engaged in erotic wrestling, corporate records show.

Today, he can be found teaching math to ninth-graders in Newark.

An examination of Capparelli's background — including interviews with former parishioners and acquaintances and a review of actions taken by the archdiocese — shows alarms were raised for decades about a man who continues to work closely with children.

The examination also found evidence of financial impropriety in Capparelli's past. Specifically, he was accused of embezzling tens of thousands of dollars while working as a part-time bookkeeper for a pair of speech and hearing specialists.

A retired partner in the firm said he decided not to press criminal charges after Capparelli's family paid restitution.

The most recent allegations came in July, when a Somerset County man filed suit against Capparelli, contending the priest sexually abused him in the 1970s and 1980s.

The suit, filed in Superior Court in Newark, alleges a pattern of predatory behavior at each of Capparelli's parishes, at a Boy Scout camp and at a vacation home in New York. The Archdiocese of Newark, the Boy Scouts and retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Newark, also are defendants.

"Capparelli is a thief," the accuser's lawyer, Beth Baldinger of Roseland, said in an interview. "By grooming my client into a 'special relationship' to sexually exploit him, he stole his innocence. He stole his confidence to judge right from wrong. He stole his faith."

Though suspended as a priest, Capparelli, 62, has not been laicized, or formally expelled from the priesthood. He denied the sexual abuse allegations in a brief interview outside his Belleville home.

"Everything is not true," he said. He referred additional questions to his lawyer, Thomas Murphy, who called his client an innocent man.

"John tells me, 'Put me on a polygraph.' He's dying with this stuff," Murphy said. "He's been teaching 20 years in Newark and there's never been an allegation. When this happens, there's usually a trail to these people — a pattern — and it's not here."

A Newark schools spokeswoman said the district had received no complaints about Capparelli, a vice president of the Newark Teachers Union, and that he remains an employee "in good standing."

Capparelli's accuser, a 48-year-old chemical engineer named Andrew Dundorf, said in an interview the alleged abuse led to struggles with depression and "an underlying current of angst" that caused difficulties in his life and affected his wife and family.

By filing suit, Dundorf said, he hopes to find healing, prevent abuse and spur accountability in the church and in the Boy Scouts. He said he also hopes to encourage other men who are alleged victims of sexual abuse to seek help.

"People like Father John scar people," he said, breaking down in tears. "John Capparelli is a predator. He should not be allowed to work with children."

The Alleged Matches

It began with an invitation to wrestle.

At Darlington Seminary in Mahwah, where Capparelli studied to be a priest, he told the children of families who sometimes came to Mass there about a "cool, different type of wrestling" that would measure toughness, his accuser, then a 13-year-old Bergen County resident, said in the suit.

He called it submission wrestling or no-holds-barred wrestling. The idea wasn't to pin an opponent but to make him give up by causing discomfort or pain.

The bouts took place at Darlington and, later, at parishes where Capparelli served as a priest and youth minister, according to the complaint. Capparelli insisted all the young participants wear Speedos, the suit said.

"It was very much showing your genitalia, and the ludicrous part is that he would tell us it was for our protection, because if you were wearing shorts, your fingers could get caught," Dundorf said. "He told us, 'I just happen to have some Speedos here.' "

Most times, Capparelli used a Polaroid camera to photograph matches, telling the teens they could look back at the pictures to improve their techniques, Dundorf said in the suit. Instead, the priest filed them in a dresser that contained thousands of images, he said.

Capparelli also sometimes passed the camera to other wrestlers while he took part in matches, placing the teens in "sexually suggestive positions" and groping their "chests, buttocks and genitals," the suit said.

If anyone expressed concern about the outfits or the pictures, Capparelli persuaded them it was normal, Dundorf said. And at a time before the sexual scandals of the 1990s and early 2000s, few people questioned the motives of seminarians or priests, he said.

"We had many wonderful seminarians over to our house for dinner," Dundorf said. "You trust that the church isn't going to allow this sort of thing."

Over time, he said, Capparelli took a "special liking" to him. He claimed he was dying of cancer and that it would be their secret, the accuser said.

Soon the priest was asking the teen to share his bed to give him comfort, spooning him through the night and becoming sexually aroused, Dundorf said.

There were vacations to Disney World, a trip to Hawaii and weekends at the priest's cabin in upstate New York, all paid out of Capparelli's pocket, the suit said. Capparelli always arranged a single room, typically with a king-size bed, his alleged victim said.

Dundorf contends in the suit he also slept in the rectory with Capparelli at every parish where he served: Our Lady of Fatima in North Bergen, Oratory Preparatory School in Summit, Our Lady of Peace in New Providence and the Church of the Holy Trinity in Westfield.

Other priests and staff members knew of the sleepovers, Dundorf said, yet to his knowledge, none raised an alarm.

While there was never oral sex or penetration, Dundorf maintains he was abused both sexually and emotionally.

"You don't have to be penetrated to be molested," he said. "Make no mistake. Sexual abuse is not just physical. It involves abuse of power and trust that invades the core of your being."

Even as Dundorf graduated high school and went to college, he said, Capparelli persuaded him to visit, using guilt as a motivator.

"He said, 'How could you not help a priest who's dying of cancer?'â" Dundorf said.

For three summers in the mid-1980s, Dundorf worked with Capparelli at the Sabattis Scout Reservation, run by the Boy Scouts of America in Long Lake, N.Y., where the priest served as camp director.

Select young men — typically blond and fit like Dundorf — were invited into Capparelli's residence to wrestle in Speedos, according to the suit.

To Bob Johnson, who worked as a Scout leader and who would later take over as camp director, the behavior was worrisome.

Johnson, a former Plainfield resident now living in Easton, Pa., said he told his son, a camper, to stay away from Capparelli's wrestling matches.

"I saw patterns that concerned me, and other people did as well," Johnson, now 73, said in an interview. "You could get vibes from some of the kids. That was not a place they wanted to be."

Johnson said he never witnessed sexual abuse, but he was troubled enough by Capparelli's behavior that he discussed it with a staff member of the Boy Scouts' Watchung Area Council, now part of the Patriots' Path Council, based in Florham Park.

Johnson said he doesn't know if his complaint was passed up the line, but he noted that Capparelli did not return for another summer.

Deron Smith, public relations director for the Boy Scouts of America, said in a statement the safety of children has always been "of paramount importance" to the organization.

"At the time of his hiring, there was no information or evidence that would suggest the individual in question was anything other than a respected priest in good standing in the community," Smith said.

While he declined to specifically address Capparelli's departure from the camp, Smith said anyone even suspected of abuse is "immediately and forever banned from our organization."

More Flags Raised

There were others who had suspicions of impropriety.

Beverly Caldora was deeply involved in Holy Trinity parish in Westfield. A former councilwoman in the community, Caldora was also something of a den mother, with large groups of her son's friends coming to the house for dinner. Capparelli, too, was a frequent guest.

She called him "the pied piper of youth," a charming, gregarious man who had a knack for connecting with kids.

"He was a genius at running youth groups," Caldora said. "He had such a strong influence on children."

Over time, however, Caldora began to question her trust in the priest as teenage boys in the parish — more than two dozen in all — complained to her about Capparelli, she said.

He was photographing them in Speedos, and they felt uncomfortable with him, she said they told her.

One young man, she said, sat in her yard for three hours and told her Capparelli "wouldn't leave him alone," that he felt as if he were being "stalked."

Caldora said she brought her concerns to the Union County Prosecutor's Office and later wrote a letter to the Archdiocese of Newark. In both cases, she said, she explained that while she had not witnessed abuse, she believed Capparelli should be investigated.

No criminal charges were brought. A spokesman for the prosecutor's office said he could neither confirm nor deny an investigation had taken place.

Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said that because Capparelli is now a matter of litigation, he could not say if church officials received a letter from Caldora.

He said the archdiocese was not made aware of allegations involving sexual abuse until shortly before the lawsuit was filed and that he immediately notified law enforcement.

Goodness did confirm Capparelli was removed from parish ministry in 1989 and that he was ordered not to work as a priest in any manner in 1992.

"It was the church's decision to suspend him," Goodness said. He declined to say why.

At the time, Capparelli's problems weren't limited to claims of inappropriate behavior with children.

He'd also been accused of theft.

For more than a year, the priest had worked as a part-time bookkeeper for a busy Westfield practice that specialized in speech and hearing problems.

While Capparelli was away on an Atlantic City vacation in 1989, an employee balancing the books in his absence discovered Capparelli had been diverting company checks for his personal use, said Irwin Blake, a speech pathologist and former principal in the practice.

Blake, now retired, said he and his partner hired an accounting firm to look deeper into the practice's finances.

"Within 15 minutes the guy came out and said, 'Oh my God, this is a clear case of embezzlement,' " said Blake, 76, adding the theft was pegged at about $30,000.

The accountant has since died, but his manager at the firm Blake hired to examine the books confirmed the incident.

"It was blatant," said the manager, Jeffrey Wechter, now a sole practitioner in Harrison.

Blake said he alerted Westfield police, then met personally with Cardinal McCarrick, then Newark's archbishop.

McCarrick, he said, "didn't bat an eye" and insisted Capparelli should receive treatment instead of jail time.

"This McCarrick was definitely covering up for him," Blake said.

McCarrick, 81, did not respond to requests for comment.

Blake said he and his partner decided against pursuing criminal charges after Capparelli's mother and brother met with the pair and agreed to repay the money. He said Capparelli later wrote a letter of apology.

Former Westfield Police Chief Bernard Tracy, who retired in 2005, said that while he doesn't recall the details, he does remember Capparelli had a "legal problem."

"I do know he got in trouble," Tracy said.

He said it is not unusual for criminal charges to be averted in such cases if the parties work it out and if restitution is made.

Later that year, Capparelli spent several months at Villa Louis Martin, a treatment center in Jemez Springs, N.M., for priests with pedophilia, alcoholism and other disorders, address records show. Goodness said he could not comment on the priest's time in treatment.

Murphy, Capparelli's lawyer, denied his client was treated for issues of a sexual nature.

"Wherever he was, it was not for doing these things," Murphy said. He declined to elaborate.

Caldora, the former Westfield councilwoman, said Capparelli showed up at her house after his return from New Mexico to retrieve some belongings he'd stored with her.

"He says, 'I'm back and everything is wonderful,' " Caldora said.

Still angry, she ordered him to leave and put his possessions on the lawn.

Turning to Teaching

Unable to serve in ministry, Capparelli turned to teaching, first landing a job as an adjunct math professor at Seton Hall University in March 1990, then adding full-time employment as a public school teacher in Newark in 1993, pension records show. He remained a Seton Hall adjunct until 2009.

A university spokesman, Justin Fahey, said school officials received no complaints about Capparelli. A website that assesses professors, however, suggests Capparelli's affection for young wrestlers — albeit wrestlers over 18 — continued, according to Dundorf's lawsuit.

On May 12, 2008, the suit said, an anonymous commenter wrote on "If you want an A in the class, just be the lucky student he picks to wrestle. Yes, wrestle. Not only will you get an A for the semester, but you'll be exempt from the final too. He is a disgrace to the institution, as a teacher and a person."

Capparelli's interests also were apparent in his video production company and website.

Corporate records show he formed NHB Productions Inc. in October 1999, linking the corporation to his home address in Belleville. The affiliated site,, sold videos of men in Speedos or bikini briefs engaged in erotic wrestling.

Some videos could be downloaded for as little as $6.95. Others sold for $14.95. All the wrestlers appear to be over 18.

Capparelli shut down the site on the advice of his lawyer July 29, shortly after he was served with the lawsuit, Murphy said.

Newark schools spokeswoman Renee Harper said district officials had been unaware of the site or the lawsuit. District officials have since checked with Capparelli's supervisors and found no evidence of impropriety, she said, adding that the teacher was not involved with the wrestling program.

"There's never been any red flags, and there's certainly no criminal marks on his background," Harper said.

Capparelli taught at Malcolm X Shabazz High School before transferring in recent years to Barringer 9 Success Academy, a ninth-grade school also known as Barringer Prep. Pension records show he makes $96,000 a year.

Newark Teachers Union President Joseph DelGrosso, who described himself as a friend of Capparelli's for nearly two decades, called the teacher's reputation "impeccable" and questioned the motives of the man who filed the lawsuit.

"I've only known priests in the best of terms, and I feel strongly that there are a lot of people who make accusations against priests because they see money at the end of the rainbow," DelGrosso said. "There's never been one iota of suspicion cast upon him here."

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