Newark Archdiocese stirs outrage after allowing accused molester to live in parish
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on July 20, 2013 at 8:00 PM, updated July 20, 2013 at 9:39 PM
Parishioners at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Oradell first noticed the man in November. Each night, he slept in the rectory. Every morning, he attended Mass in the soaring brick church, across the street from the parish’s elementary school.
What parishioners didn’t know — what neither their pastor nor the Archdiocese of Newark told them — was that the man was an accused sexual predator.
The Rev. Robert Chabak, 66, was removed from ministry in 2004, when church officials determined there was evidence to support allegations he molested a teenage boy over a three-year period in the 1970s.
In the years since, Chabak has lived in a home once owned by his mother in the Normandy Beach section of Toms River. When Hurricane Sandy damaged that home, the archdiocese allowed him to take up residence at St. Joseph “out of a sense of compassion,” said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for Archbishop John. J. Myers.
But no one informed parishioners, who now say the archdiocese and the pastor, the Rev. Thomas Iwanowski, knowingly put children at risk.
It would be months before a few members of the parish discovered Chabak’s background. Under pressure from those parishioners, the archdiocese removed Chabak from St. Joseph in February, transferring him to a retirement home for priests in Rutherford.
But even then, parishioners said, Chabak repeatedly came back to St. Joseph to spend the night.
The furor has led to Iwanowski’s ouster as pastor, effective July 31. It also has spawned fierce criticism of the archdiocese, which has come under fire repeatedly for its handling of predator priests.
Most recently, Myers faced calls for his resignation in April and May after it was revealed the Rev. Michael Fugee had extensively interacted with teenagers despite a lifetime ban on ministry to children. Fugee has since been criminally charged with violating a judicial order.
Daniel O’Toole, the parishioner who led the effort to remove Chabak from St. Joseph, called Iwanowski and Myers “spectacularly tone deaf” given revelations about clergy sexual abuse and said the church has repeated its “past sins” by “recycling a problem priest into an unsuspecting community.”
“If these last two painful decades of scandal have taught us anything, it is that those who have engaged in sexual predation of children will continue to do so for as long as they are permitted access to children,” said O’Toole, 46, an attorney whose three children attend St. Joseph School.
“That access, in and of itself, presents a danger,” he said. “By allowing this man to live in the rectory within close proximity to parish children, schoolchildren and CCD students, the church breached its duty to its people.”
Several other parishioners have expressed similar anger and frustration but declined to speak for attribution. O’Toole said he is speaking for them.
Mark Crawford, the New Jersey director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national advocacy group, called Chabak’s placement at St. Joseph “truly disturbing.”
“It is absolutely reckless to take this chance with a known predator,” Crawford said. “Why are we still taking such risks and not informing parents and parishioners? Clearly, the archbishop is not being on the level or honest with the people in the pews.”
Chabak, who is now back in the Normandy Beach home, declined to comment when a reporter knocked on his door last week.
Voter registration records show he shares the home with Iwanowski, 64, when the pastor is not at St. Joseph.
In a brief interview outside the Oradell rectory, Iwanowski said he didn’t see the harm in Chabak’s stay at the church.
“He lived in the rectory and went to Mass every day. He didn’t do anything else,” Iwanowski said. “I don’t see the problem with that.”
Asked about the propriety of Chabak visiting the parish after his removal, Iwanowski said, “He came for dinner. You have friends, don’t you? He simply came for dinner and visited a friend. Does it matter that he stayed over?”
The pastor called it “interesting” that people were watching the rectory to note Chabak’s comings and goings. He also said the controversy has been largely manufactured.
“There were people who had problems with my administration of the parish, and this gave them something to latch onto,” he said.
Iwanowski announced his resignation in the July 14 edition of the church bulletin. He wrote that he met with the archbishop July 5 “to discuss the situation here” and that he and Myers “reached the conclusion it would be best for me to move ‘forward in faith.’” The message did not name Chabak.
Goodness, the archdiocese spokesman, would not say if Myers personally approved Chabak’s move to St. Joseph, calling it an archdiocese decision.
The spokesman said the placement was the result of an “extraordinary circumstance” given the extensive damage to Chabak’s house.
“When this situation happened, it was logical to see if Chabak could be put up at St. Joseph for a little while with his friend, and there was space available,” Goodness said. “It was somebody answering a call for help in an emergency time.”
He said Chabak was moved to the retirement home in Rutherford when it became clear it would take longer to repair his house than originally thought. Iwanowski, Goodness said, was well aware of Chabak’s restriction on ministry and ensured the suspended priest did not take part in parish life other than attend Mass.
Chabak, ordained in 1972, was assigned to St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Elizabeth when he allegedly molested a 15-year-old boy for three years in the 1970s, authorities told The Star-Ledger in 2004, when the allegation was reported.
The statute of limitations had long since expired, and Chabak was not criminally charged.
But an investigation by the archdiocese showed there was “sufficient information to begin a canonical process,” Goodness said.
While the church declined to laicize Chabak, or remove him from the priesthood altogether, it stripped him of his priestly faculties, meaning he may not wear a collar or represent himself as a priest in any way.
The archdiocese has allowed him at least two exceptions to the ban, giving him permission to preside over the funerals of his mother and his aunt, Goodness said. The aunt’s funeral was held at St. Joseph in June of last year.
In recent months, the archdiocese has been made aware of a second allegation against Chabak, Goodness said.
The accuser, an Essex County attorney, told The Star-Ledger he was a 14-year-old altar boy at St. Mary of the Assumption in Elizabeth when Chabak invited him and another teen to Normandy Beach for a weekend in December 1977.
The newspaper has agreed to withhold the man’s name because he is an alleged victim of attempted sexual abuse.
The lawyer said Chabak brought him to see the R-rated movie “Saturday Night Fever” and tried to “initiate” him into the priest’s “club.”
“To be part of the club you had to strip down naked and run around while he photographed it,” the man said.
The accuser said he refused.
Later that night, he said, he was sleeping on Chabak’s living room floor when he awoke to find the priest straddling him and trying to remove his shirt. The other teen, a 15-year-old, was holding his legs, participating in the attack, the man said.
He said he managed to punch Chabak in the face and free himself, then ran and hid in the bushes.
“I never went back to the church,” he said. “In that one incident, he stole my childhood and innocence. I’ve been emotionally detached ever since. That moment was defining to me. He ruined me.”
The man said he kept the attempted assault a secret for decades, eventually telling his mother and brother. By happenstance, he learned about Chabak’s move into St. Joseph parish from a friend.
He has since made contact with O’Toole, the Oradell parishioner, and shared the story with him. O’Toole, in turn, passed the information on to the archdiocese, though he did not provide the accuser’s name.
In June, Goodness referred the case to the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office. A spokesman for that office, Al Della Fave, said law enforcement is eager to speak to the alleged victim, though it appears a criminal case would be barred by the statute of limitations.
“Ocean County prosecutor’s officials are willing to help him in any way they can,” Della Fave said.
The man has declined to speak to the archdiocese and says he has no intention of filing a lawsuit. What he wants, he said, is for Chabak to be kept as far away from children as possible.
O’Toole called his fight to remove Chabak extremely difficult and disillusioning, saying he cares deeply about the Catholic church and his parish, which he has attended his entire life.
“I’ve had people suggest to me I should just let this go, and I shouldn’t stand up and speak the truth because it’s going to cause potential harm to the church or to the school,” O’Toole said.
“And to those folks, I would suggest looking the other way and not giving voice to these things is what has put us in this position — this position where we’re constantly putting out fires created by church administrators and bad priests,” he said. “Honesty is the only true hope for the future of the Roman Catholic church in the United States of America.”