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Seven New Jersey priests won't face sex charges

Expired statute of limitations and reluctant victims are cited

Thursday, August 14, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

Seven Roman Catholic priests in Union County accused of incidents of sexual abuse and misconduct between 1955 and 1982 should have had criminal charges filed against them years ago, authorities said yesterday.

However, after a yearlong investigation that recently concluded, no charges will be filed because either the statute of limitations expired or the alleged victims were reluctant to testify, Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow said.

In a separate investigation by Romankow's office involving more recent allegations, a former priest at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Elizabeth surrendered to authorities Tuesday morning. The Rev. Hadmels DeFrias is accused of fondling two brothers -- both under the age of 14 -- when they worked in a rectory in 2001 and 2002, authorities said.

DeFrias was released on $7,500 bail and is scheduled to return to court Aug. 22.

Romankow said the broader investigation involved 16 priests. Twenty-one people accused the priests of sexual abuse and misconduct that they say occurred from 1955 to 1982. Some of the allegations were not brought to the attention of law enforcement until last year.

Allegations against eight of the 16 priests would not have led to charges because of insufficient evidence or because victims were not easily identified, Romankow said. There were credible allegations against the other eight, but one is dead.

Of the remaining seven, none still works as a priest, said James Goodness, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark. At least three retired before the allegations surfaced. The others either voluntarily left or were formally removed from the ministry after the allegations were made, Goodness said.

"In some instances, you're talking about a year-and-a-half that the investigation has been proceeding, and they've been out of ministry all that time," Goodness said. "That's a clear demonstration that we've taken the appropriate steps. We removed them right away."

The Newark archdiocese covers 1.3 million Roman Catholics in Union, Essex, Bergen and Hudson counties.

Three of the seven cases in which charges could have been filed involved allegations from more than one accuser, said Assistant Prosecutor David Hancock, who headed the investigation.

The most serious allegation involved a priest who allegedly raped a 7-year-old girl in 1955. That case could not be prosecuted because the five-year statute of limitation in place at the time expired. There is no longer a statute of limitation in rape cases.

Prosecutors would not identify the priests or parishes involved in any of the allegations for fear of compromising the victims' confidentiality.

However, Goodness confirmed that the Rev. Edward Eilert and the Rev. Joseph Rice are two of the seven.

When the allegations against them surfaced in the spring of 2002, both had already left Union County. Eilert was pastor of St. Philomena's Church in Livingston and Rice was chaplain at the Bergen Regional Health Care Center in Paramus.

Goodness said the archdiocese would not release names of more priests unless the Vatican approves their permanent removal from ministry.

The archdiocese hopes, by the end of summer, to publicly release information as to the number of credibly accused priests. Essex, Bergen and Hudson prosecutors have not yet released their information to the archdiocese, he said.

Over the course of the investigation by Romankow's office, some victims would not cooperate. A few included their allegations in anonymous letters to prosecutors and could not be identified, Hancock said.

Bill Curtis, co-president of the central New Jersey chapter of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, the largest national group for victims of clergy sex abuse, said he hoped more names would be released.

"I think they should still make those names public, just for the safety of people out there," he said.

In the DeFrias case, the allegations came to light when the mother of the boys told authorities she walked in while the alleged acts were being committed in 2002, authorities said.

The 32-year-old DeFrias, a native of the Dominican Republic, joined the priesthood in 1999. He left his ministry after the allegation was made and is now living in Forestville, Md.

Anthony Iacullo, the attorney for DeFrias, said his client denies the charges, which he said allege improper touching over clothing.

More than a year ago, the state Attorney General's office asked each of New Jersey's five Catholic dioceses to share information about accusations against priests with law enforcement officials.

The Metuchen Diocese, which covers 522,000 Catholics in Middlesex, Warren, Hunterdon and Somerset counties, said earlier this year that 34 accusations were made against its priests and that five were deemed credible.

All five voluntarily left the ministry when faced with the allegations, said Ron Rak, the diocesan general secretary. They include the Rev. John M. Banko, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison earlier this year after he was convicted of molesting an 11-year-old altar boy.

Copyright 2003 The Star-Ledger

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests