Priest cleared of sexual assault allegations, six years later, still struggling to shed stigma

The Times, New Jersey/January 3, 2012

Hamilton -- In 2005, as the Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis continued to grab headlines all over America, even the St. Raphael-Holy Angels parish was not immune to scandal.

One of their own priests was accused of improperly touching a young girl.

Among parishioners, there was anger, confusion, despair. A tragedy playing out in communities across the country had now spread to a close-knit parish in Hamilton.

But a curious thing happened: Instead of turning their backs on the accused, the Rev. James Selvaraj, parishioners rallied to his defense.

"No one ever questioned anything about it, they just knew this man and knew it was wrong," parishioner Frank Hamilton said. "The support and the people that came out — you're talking a whole church community behind him."

Supporters signed petitions, phoned the Trenton diocese and had fundraisers for Selvaraj's legal defense.

That was six years ago. Today, their faith in Selvaraj remains as unwavering as ever.

It's support that Selvaraj, 51, has been forced to lean on since he was first accused in 2005 and stripped of his priestly faculties in the Diocese of Trenton. Without a job or income, he has depended on financial support from parishioners, who have raised tens of thousands of dollars for his legal and living expenses.

A guest priest originally from India, Selvaraj was ordered back to his native country by then-Bishop John M. Smith. In a recent ruling the Vatican sided with the diocese, saying it handled Selvaraj's case properly. Priests are expected to defer to and obey the decisions of their bishop.

Selvaraj has steadfastly refused to leave, though, and has spent the last six years on a crusade to clear the name and reputation he says was smeared.

How can he move on to a new job or parish after being tarred as an abuser, a molester, he asks?

"For nothing, I'm being crucified and it's dragged on for six years," he said. "It bothers me very much. I gave my life to this church and they don't even have the conscience to restore my good name and dignity."

The accusation

Selvaraj arrived in the Diocese of Trenton in June 1999, working as an associate pastor at Blessed Sacrament Church in Trenton and St. Mary of the Lake in Lakewood. In 2004, he became an adjunct, or visiting priest, at St. Raphael-Holy Angels.

Supporters say they were drawn in immediately by his warm and heartfelt homilies. "When he did a mass with very word he spoke, with every homily he gave, God shone right through him," parishioner Carol Bresnen said.

In May 2005, the bishop accepted Selvaraj into the incardination process. After a three-year period, the diocese would decide whether to offer him a full-time position.

A few months later, on Sept. 28, 2005, he was milling around at an after-school program at the Saint Raphael School. Earlier in the day, he'd visited a few religion classes at the request of the school, at one point showing students how to write in his native language, Tamil.

At the after-school program, he helped an 11-year-old girl write her name in Tamil, according to a school volunteer's sworn statement in excerpts from a deposition Selvaraj provided. He took her hand and stood behind her as he showed her how to form the letters on a chalkboard. Other parents, teachers and students were present, even the girl's mother, he said. No one complained.

The next morning he was called in by the school's vice principal, who told Selvaraj the girl's mother was accusing him of molesting her daughter.

In December of 2005, he was charged with one count of endangering a child, a charge that carried with it a sentence of three to five years in prison.

Though he pleaded not guilty, Selvaraj said his life was over.

If you Google his name, "everything pops up," Selvaraj said. "'Priest accused.' I'm branded as if I'm a pedophile."

His priestly faculties were removed, meaning he couldn't preside over a publicMass, present himself as a priest or administer any sacraments. Parishioners were notified of the accusation and charge in a letter read one Sunday.

More than 600 parishioners signed a petition asking the diocese to reinstate Selvaraj. Some said the attack on Selvaraj was racially motivated, an act of retaliation by those who complained about "foreign priests."

"When you see an injustice happening you stand up for it, you don't turn your back and walk away," Frank Bresnen, another congregant, said. "The love we have for Father James, we knew in our hearts he was innocent before he even went into court."

In February 2006, a grand jury threw out the charge, finding there was insufficient evidence to charge Selvaraj. A state attorney general later expunged his record, leaving no formal trace of the accusation or charge levied against him.

The legal clearance matters little, Selvaraj said. On his record, on his name, there remains a black mark.

Ordered home

In February 2006, then-Bishop John M. Smith wrote to local Catholics, informing them of his decision to send Selvaraj back to India and end the priest's incardination process.

When Selvaraj's attorney protested, Smith wrote a response saying Selvaraj had been warned repeatedly of his "overly friendly personality" and lack of understanding of American culture. His order was not meant as a penalty, he said.

"While the recent complaint made against him by a parent was ultimately found wanting by a grand jury, and while it appears that the situation may have been innocent, it is my judgment as Bishop of Trenton that Father James can no longer serve effectively in parish ministry in this Diocese," Smith wrote.

Through letters and legal appeals to the diocese, its new Bishop David O'Connell, who took office a year ago, Vatican committees, even Pope Benedict XVI, Selvaraj has waged a campaign to clear his name and be allowed to finish out his incardination process.

Now a U.S. citizen, Selvaraj said he will return to Tuticorin, his home parish in India, once he receives a formal declaration from the diocese that he is a priest in good standing.

The diocese maintained it had done that already in letters to Selvaraj's bishop in India and a letter read aloud to congregants announcing the charges against him had been dismissed.

Selvaraj was never officially accepted as a priest of the Diocese of Trenton, and all protocols were followed in the decision to end Selvaraj's incardination, the diocese said.

"These matters have since been the subject of a canonical appeal by Father Selvaraj, and the Holy See has issued its ruling on the matter, judging that the Diocese of Trenton acted properly and within its rights regarding its decision not to incardinate Father Selvaraj," the diocese said in a statement earlier this month.

"The priest was directed to return to his home diocese in India and to his own bishop there, to whom Father Selvaraj promised obedience at his ordination," the statement said.

The diocese did continue to pay most of Selvaraj's car and health insurance bills after the initial accusation, according to correspondence Selvaraj provided. Those payments were cut off this year.

Wrongful accusations

Selvaraj calls himself shy, and refused to be photographed for this article. But during an interview earlier this month at a supporter's home, the soft-spoken priest spoke angrily at times, painting himself as a victim persecuted by the church he pledged his life.

"Let the church clear my name," he said. "That's what I'm fighting for. I'm trying to prove my innocence."

But dioceses have been understandably wary of restoring priests, even if they insist on their innocence.

Accused of moving too slowly for decades as clergy molested teens and children, the Catholic church adopted a zero-tolerance policy in its 2002 charter on child sex abuse. Now some supporters of accused priests say the church has adopted a knee-jerk reaction to all allegations, removing priests and allowing them to languish in limbo even if charges of sex abuse are found to be unsubstantiated.

"Even if it's a he-said, she-said, people automatically believe the accuser, not the priest," said Thomas Plante, a psychologist and a professor at Santa Clara University in California who has worked with accused priests and dioceses since the 1980s. "Then they get this kind of black stain on them, if you can call it that, and nobody wants to touch them."

Restoring any accused clergy is fraught with risks. What if they abuse again?

"The church in America and elsewhere too, is very, very nervous and they don't want to take any chances, so they say rather be safe than sorry," Plante said.

And historically, few allegations have been found to be untrue. Of 5,681 allegations of abuse investigated by dioceses nationwide, only 1.5 percent were found to be false, according to a 2004 report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Bishops.

The report said that from 1950 to 2002, 4,392 priests were accused of sexual abuse and a total of 10,667 allegations were recorded.

"No one wants an innocent person to be marked or labeled by any means," said Mark Crawford, the director of the New Jersey chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), an organization that advocates for victims of clergy abuse.

"That said, if there's any semblance that somebody acted inappropriately with a child, you simply cannot take that risk," he said.

Not giving up

But supporters of Selvaraj — there are at least dozens, if not hundreds — say he has been treated unfairly by a rigid diocese and church hierarchy that want to simply hand him off to his home diocese in India without admitting his case was handled improperly.

Gathered at the Hamilton home of Lou and Kathy Monticchio earlier this month, a core group of 10 supporters said they aren't ready to throw in the towel yet. They'd like to see Selvaraj preach again in their parish, but more importantly, they want his reputation cleared.

"We hired a canon lawyer and followed the book to the T, everything done step by step," Carol Bresnen said. "Do you know the frustration of not only the people in this room but the wonderful man over there that has this cross to bear because the justice system is not working in this Church?"

Selvaraj argued that in not working hard enough to lift the cloud of suspicion that hangs around his head, the church has not fulfilled its duty to him.

"If I did something wrong, let them punish me," he said. "But my life has been ruined." He said he realizes he is fortunate to have attracted such support in the face of a serious accusation and to have disciples who have devoted time, money and resources to help a man accused of a terrible crime.

"They're wonderful people. They're like a family," he said. "They live the gospel. Their own brother, they see suffering. They raised money. They supported me. It's all God's providence."

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