NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The agreement with prosecutors, reached after a priest's conviction on charges that he fondled a teenage boy were thrown out, was unequivocal.
The Rev. Michael Fugee could return to ministry in the Archdiocese of Newark, but was barred from having unsupervised contact with minors or a job that requires him to oversee or minister to children under the age of 18.
But despite the legally binding agreement, Fugee was a presence at a church youth group, traveling with teenagers to Canada on a mission to help disabled Catholics, hearing confessions from teenagers and participating in retreat trips.
This week's disclosure that Fugee continued to work with children has roiled the faithful in New Jersey, opening up wounds from the church abuse scandal that started in Boston more than 10 years ago and raising questions about how closely the archdiocese monitored Fugee's activities.
Fugee submitted a letter of resignation Thursday night, saying the archdiocese was unaware of his youth ministry work.
"My failure to request the required permissions to engage in those ministry activities is my fault, my fault alone," Fugee wrote. "I am sorry that my actions have caused pain to my Church and to her people."
But that hasn't stopped victim advocates and politicians, including gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono, from calling for the resignation of Archbishop John J. Myers, who oversaw Fugee.
Archdiocese spokesman James Goodness called such comments "rash and reckless." He said the archdiocese followed all rules set down by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in dealing with Fugee.
But exactly how those rules square with the agreement that allowed Fugee to remain in the priesthood is unclear.
The child protection policy, formally known as the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, states that a priest should be permanently removed from ministry "for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor_whenever it occurred_which is admitted or established."
Thomas Plante, a psychologist who has served on the bishops' National Review Board and counsels sex offender priests, said only a reasonable accusation is needed for removal and most priests and bishops are "hyper-vigilant" about the issues.
"It doesn't matter if the person is convicted of a crime or not," Plante said. "All you need is a reasonable accusation."
The details of Fugee's criminal case are clear. He confessed to police that, during a vacation to Virginia with a parishioner and her son from his Wykoff church in 2000, he wrestled with the boy and "grabbed his crotch" and became sexually "excited" by what he'd done.
Although his lawyers argued at trial his confession was coerced, Fugee was convicted of aggravated criminal sexual contact. But Fugee's conviction was thrown out after the courts revised jury instructions tied to a procedural aspect of the case.
Prosecutors opted not to retry him. Instead, they reached an agreement with Fugee and the archdiocese in July 2007 that reinstated Fugee as a priest — the archdiocese said he was removed from ministry in 2000 — and prohibited him from working with children. Goodness, the archdiocese spokesman, said the local archdiocesan review board concluded that "sexual abuse did not take place" and Fugee could serve as a priest.
According to Goodness, the archdiocese was attentive, allowing Fugee to minister in a hospital without a pediatric unit. He was removed from the position after an outcry, and placed in an administrative job at Archdiocesan headquarters. So far as the Archdiocese knew, Goodness said, Fugee had no interaction with children.
But he had apparently been around children the entire time.
Fugee was longtime friends with Amy and Michael Lenehan, lay youth group ministers at St. Mary's Church in Colts Neck. He spent time at the church and participated in at least three youth retreats, two in New Jersey and one in Canada, said Margaret Franklin, whose children were on those retreats with Fugee. Photos show Fugee with children as well.
Franklin said she has seen Fugee at the church for at least 18 years. Her daughter received confession from him in a closed room with no one else present last year, she said.
Franklin said she was aware that Fugee had been accused of abuse, but did not know he signed an agreement with prosecutors barring him from working with children.
"What we were told was that the boy had recanted his story, that he was just looking for his 15 minutes to persecute a priest and the whole thing had been recanted and dropped," Franklin said. "And I have to say that personally I feel somewhat betrayed because it clearly was misrepresented to the parents."
The Lenehans did not return calls for comment or respond to a note left at their house. The pastor of St. Mary's and a lawyer for Fugee also did not return calls.
Officials in the Diocese of Trenton insist they were not informed about Fugee — a requirement under church rules for a priest accused of abuse — and did not grant him permission to minister in the diocese.
Goodness said the Archdiocese of Newark did not know Fugee was ministering in other dioceses until they were contacted by a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger two weeks ago. Fugee did not seek permission for his work, Goodness said.
Myers accepted Fugee's resignation letter Thursday night. Fugee remains an archdiocesan priest, but cannot wear clerical clothing or publicly present himself as a priest. Goodness said the diocese does not know if it will petition to remove Fugee from the priesthood.
Prosecutors said they have reopened Fugee's case to see if the memorandum was violated.
Associated Press national religion writer Rachel Zoll contributed to this report.
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