NJ -- Victims blast Newark Catholic officials
For immediate release: Saturday, March 21
As they have done hundreds of times, Catholic officials have again exploited legal loopholes to evade responsibility for sexually violating teenagers. Shame on former Paramus Catholic High School staffers Artur Sopel and Michael Sumulikoski, for both sexually exploiting teenagers they were obligated to protect and using technicalities to get themselves off the hook.
And shame on Newark Catholic officials, especially Archbishop John Myers, for ignoring and tolerating this injustice. By his silence, Myers is again showing his callousness about the safety of teenagers.
We call on New Jersey lawmakers to remedy this injustice. No predator should walk free because he’s shrewd enough to hurt youngsters on a particular side of a border. We urge New Jersey parents to be even more careful when sending their youngsters abroad.
We are grateful that civil lawsuits are pending against Paramus Catholic High School for these hurtful betrayals suffered by the teenagers and their families. We hope those cases go to trial so the full truth about this awful situation can be brought to light.
(SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is the world’s oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims. We were founded in 1988 and have more than 20,000 members. Despite the word “priest” in our title, we have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)
Court rules former Paramus Catholic overseas chaperones cannot be charged with sexual assault
MARCH 18, 2015, 10:22 AM LAST UPDATED: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 18, 2015, 11:44 PM
BY KIBRET MARKOS AND MARY DIDUCH - STAFF WRITERS | THE RECORD
A state Supreme Court ruling that dismissed charges Wednesday against two former Paramus Catholic High School chaperones accused of having sex with students during an overseas trip will leave parents worried about sending their children on trips, Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli said. He called on lawmakers to amend the state’s criminal code to remedy the court decision.
Defense attorneys and some legal experts, meanwhile, defended the ruling as one that was based on a long-established principle that crimes should be prosecuted where they were committed.
“I am hopeful that school districts throughout New Jersey recognize the significance of this ruling, at least until it is corrected by statute,” Molinelli said in a statement Wednesday. “Any school-sponsored class event outside of the state of New Jersey and where a similar incident is alleged to have occurred might meet with the same result, much to the surprise of parents and guardians that might believe otherwise when they authorize their child to attend such events.”
The state’s highest court ruled unanimously that Artur Sopel and Michael Sumulikoski, two former employees of the school, cannot be charged in New Jersey for alleged acts |in Germany.
Molinelli said authorities had looked into the possibility of having Sopel and Sumulikoski prosecuted in Germany. However, he said he has not talked to anyone there about pressing charges.
“I am not certain their conduct would violate any laws in Germany,” he said. “If it did, German authorities would have to initiate” the charges.
The court decision overturned rulings by a state appeals court and a trial judge in Bergen County who had found that the two men, who assumed their positions of trust in New Jersey, can face charges here.
The 6-0 ruling dismissed 14 of the 25 counts in the indictment, throwing out all charges against Sumulikoski. It returned the case to Superior Court in Hackensack for further proceedings on the remaining counts, all of which relate to Sopel, who faces charges that he tampered with witnesses and sexually assaulted another 17-year-old girl in River Edge in 2010. A hearing on those charges is scheduled for April 6.
The justices acknowledged the implication of the ruling in their 28-page opinion.
“We recognize that the outcome here may be unsettling,” the justices wrote. “It is troubling to think that a teacher responsible for the care of young adults can sexually assault them on a school trip abroad and not be subject to prosecution in our state. That outcome, though, is driven by existing statutory law. … The legislature may consider amending the law.”
Defense attorneys have maintained Sopel and Sumulikoski’s innocence, but argued that even if a crime were committed, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office was overreaching by bringing charges for offenses committed in Europe.
“If a New Jersey resident were to murder a person in California, the case would not be prosecuted in New Jersey; it would be prosecuted where the crime actually occurred,” said Alan Zegas, who represented Sopel. “Prosecutors in this case attempted to expand the breadth of cases the state is permitted to prosecute.”
Philip De Vencentes, who represented Sumulikoski, agreed.
“The court applied well-established constitutional principles on territorial jurisdiction,” he said.
Sopel and Sumulikoski were charged with having sex with at least three students while chaperoning a trip to Werl, Germany, in February 2011. Sopel, who was vice president of operations at the school, was 28; Sumulikoski, a substitute teacher, was 31. The three students were all 17.
Persons 16 or older are legally old enough to consent to sex in New Jersey. But it is still a crime for an adult to have sex with someone under 18 if they have supervisory or disciplinary authority over that individual. Parents, guardians, priests, teachers, tutors or chaperones fall into that category.
Bergen County prosecutors did not allege that any of the sexual acts took place in New Jersey, or that Sopel and Sumulikoski took any preparatory steps here. They argued instead that the men agreed to become chaperones while in New Jersey, assuming supervisory authority over the students. That relationship was a basis for the offense, they argued, and therefore part of the crime occurred in Bergen County, giving New Jersey prosecutors jurisdiction.
Superior Court Judge James Guida in Hackensack had agreed with prosecutors and refused to dismiss the charges. An appellate panel upheld his ruling, finding that parents entrusted their children to the chaperones in New Jersey, and that legal obligation continued until they returned to the state.
The state’s highest court did not agree, finding that Sopel’s and Sumulikoski’s status as supervisors – though established in New Jersey – did not provide a basis for jurisdiction. Status is different from conduct or an affirmative act, they wrote.
Molinelli said the court’s ruling was based exclusively on the law and noted that even the justices found the outcome “unsettling” and “troubling.”
“I am hopeful that our legislature receives the court’s message and amends the statute to encompass these types of alleged offenses,” Molinelli said.
Joseph Del Russo, a retired sex-crimes prosecutor from the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office, said Molinelli has a legitimate concern about school trips.
“The Supreme Court’s interpretation would leave children vulnerable and prosecutors powerless,” he said.
One remedy would be that in future cases, prosecutors gather evidence that the defendants engaged in some type of grooming, flirting, texting or any similar act while in New Jersey — supporting an argument for jurisdiction.
Del Russo also suggested the law be amended to grant prosecutors some reach beyond the state’s territory.
“The Legislature can protect children by explicitly stating that this statute governs not only conduct in New Jersey, but also conduct outside of New Jersey,” he said. “School trips happen all the time. This is a problem that deserves an extraterritorial remedy.”
Katherine Grace Steiner, who went on the trip to Germany in 2011 as a freshman at Paramus Catholic, said the case made her question her safety at school.
“It still was nerve-racking that this could have happened on the trip,” said Steiner, 19, a student at Seton Hall University
Some of the alleged victims also filed a civil lawsuit in 2013 in Superior Court in Hackensack against Sopel, Sumulikoski, the school and the Archdiocese of Newark. A spokesman for the archdiocese declined to comment.
Terri Miller, president of the national advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct & Exploitation, said students should always be protected no matter where abuse occurs.
“If they are under their supervision, then these educators should always be punished if they violate our children, no matter what soil they are standing on,” Miller said.
However, Joseph Rotella, president of the New Jersey Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, said the court recognized “both state sovereignty, and the sovereignty of other nations.”
Had the state Supreme Court allowed the case to be prosecuted, the precedent-setting decision could have had far-reaching ramifications on other cases that may arise out of actions that occurred overseas, he said.
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