By Deena Yellin
When New Jersey’s attorney general launched an investigation into alleged abuses by Roman Catholic clergy in the state more than five years ago, Bruce Novozinsky felt a wave of relief.
“I had so much hope,” said Novozinsky, an abuse survivor from Monmouth County who says his family’s parish priest, the late Rev. Gerry Brown of St. Mary of the Lake in Lakewood, tried to rape him when he was 16.
Yet more than five years after the investigation was announced with great fanfare, there’s no sign that a grand jury empaneled to oversee the probe will release its report any time soon. Despite receiving hundreds of tips, the effort thus far has resulted in only three indictments and one conviction, and the state Attorney General’s Office has been tight-lipped about its process.
Abuse survivors around New Jersey say they’ve been let down once again.
Then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced the formation of a task force in September 2018 to look into allegations of sexual abuse within New Jersey’s Catholic dioceses. His impetus was a Pennsylvania grand jury report that had been released days earlier. That 1,400-page report, compiled over two years, documented widespread cases of sexual abuse by priests in the Keystone State and an organized effort by the church to cover it up. It was hailed by survivors as a landmark moment of accountability for the American church.
In announcing his own probe, Grewal said, “We owe it to the people of New Jersey to find out whether the same thing happened here.” He vowed to hold perpetrators responsible.
Other states around the country — including New York, Kentucky and Nebraska — also followed Pennsylvania with inquiries into local dioceses. Most took only two years to complete their reviews.
Clergy abuse task force
When he announced the task force in September 2018, Grewal named former acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert Laurino, an experienced sex crimes prosecutor, to head a team of detectives assembled from county prosecutors’ offices. Grewal authorized the task force to present evidence to a state grand jury and said it could use subpoenas to compel testimony.
The Attorney General’s Office also established a hotline to let people anonymously report allegations of clergy abuse. A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office said the line has received more than 600 calls to date, but the office declined to say how many have been investigated.
Novozinsky and other survivors said they were gratified the state was finally pursuing justice. He called the hotline in 2018 to report his story but was disappointed to find that “the staffing was ill-prepared,” he said. “I received a call back after around six weeks and was told the matter would be turned over to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office due to the hotline being inundated with many calls. That was the last I heard from anyone.
“No one anticipated the volume of abuse of the victims,” Novozinsky said.
Novozinsky said he was never interviewed by anyone from the attorney general’s task force. Since the announcement, abuse survivors have been waiting for news of a report from the grand jury. Novozinsky said the community is “frustrated that it’s at a standstill.”
Grewal left his post in 2021 to become director of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission. He was replaced by Andrew Bruck, who was succeeded by current Attorney General Matthew Platkin.
Grewal did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Prosecutors respond to criticism
But in a recent interview, Laurino, the head of the task force, said the investigation continues. “We are still working on it,” he said. “We hope to draw it to a conclusion. We’re hoping to wrap it up as soon as we can.” He declined to account for the delay or offer a timeline.
“We’re at a grand jury level and can’t comment on anything at this point,” he said.
Lisa Coryell, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, added, “Our investigation of alleged abuse is ongoing, and we are actively working to identify additional individuals who have been victimized by clergy no matter how long ago.”
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Like Laurino, she declined to predict when a final report would be issued. But both said the agency is committed to releasing one.
The Camden and Paterson dioceses declined to comment on the investigation. A spokeswoman from the Newark Archdiocese did not immediately return an e-mail seeking comment.
Three priests charged, one convicted
This state’s investigation has thus far resulted in criminal charges against three clergy members, the Attorney General’s Office said: the Rev. Thomas Ganley of Phillipsburg, the Rev. Brendan Williams of Howell and the Rev. Donato Cabardo of Jersey City.
Ganley was a priest at St. Cecilia Church in the Iselin section of Woodbridge when the alleged criminal acts occurred between 1990 and 1994, the office has said. The victim called the state hotline in January 2019 to report an alleged assault. Two days later, Ganley was arrested by members of the Clergy Abuse Task Force and the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.
He was charged with one count of first-degree aggravated sexual assault and two counts of second-degree sexual assault. In April 2019, he pleaded guilty to the second-degree charge and was sentenced to four years in state prison.
Cabardo was a priest at St. Paul of the Cross when he allegedly groped a woman in the church rectory on two occasions in 2020. The Archdiocese of Newark received the complaint from an employee and forwarded it to the Clergy Abuse Task Force. The priest was arrested on August 2020 and charged with two counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact and one count of harassment. He was admitted into a pre-trial intervention program.
Williams, serving at the St. Veronica parish in Howell, was charged with sexually assaulting a minor in incidents from 1998 through 2000, after the alleged victim’s father called the hotline. On September 2019, Williams was arrested by members of the Clergy Abuse Task Force and the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and charged with criminal sexual contact of a victim under age 13. He was acquitted after a bench trial in Monmouth County, during which the accuser, a 34-year-old woman with multiple mental disorders, failed to convince the judge that Williams had molested her on three occasions when she was a child.
Praise for task force’s work
Mark Crawford, the New Jersey state director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an advocacy group, said he has taken several victims to give statements to the investigators, typically a team of two detectives from each county trained to deal with sexual assault victims. He complimented the task force’s work.
“The investigators are doing a thorough job,” he said.
“When victims call the hotline, they give their information, and within a few weeks, they hear from the detectives in their county who ask if they want to come in and give an official statement so that an investigation can occur,” Crawford said.
Msgr. Kenneth Lasch, a former pastor with the Paterson Diocese, said he was interviewed twice by detectives from the task force because of his work as an advocate for clergy abuse survivors. “They were extensive interviews that lasted several hours. We went over my involvement as an advocate for victims in cases that I was involved with in the Diocese of Paterson and with Delbarton,” he said, referring to the school in Morris County. “They asked a series of questions about specific incidents and took notes.”
Why the investigation has slowed
Legal experts attribute the task force’s pace to delays caused by COVID-19 as well as the large number of abuse reports and a chronic shortage of judges in New Jersey.
“Once COVID hit, that set back their investigation by two years,” said John Baldante, a Haddonfield attorney who has brought 350 clergy abuse cases against the Catholic Church in New Jersey.
Attorney Greg Gianforcaro, who has represented hundreds of clergy abuse survivors in the state over three decades, said many of his clients provided statements to task force investigators and that their information will eventually be included in the report, except their names.
He believes the task force is taking a long time because it faces more cases than are seen in the other states. That’s because of an old state law that Gianforcaro said made New Jersey a dumping ground for abusive priests.
The state’s Charitable Immunity Act, adopted in 1958, gave protection to nonprofit and religious institutions like the Catholic Church, said the attorney, who is based in Phillipsburg.
The provision was repealed in 2006. But in the five decades before that, “the church felt like they could get away with sending their clerics who had abused children out of state to work here,” Gianforcaro said. “In essence, New Jersey was a haven for pedophile priests because the church viewed itself as not being able to be held liable for the sexual abuse of children.”
‘An ongoing public danger’
The Pennsylvania grand jury investigation, which found over 300 predator priests who had abused nearly 1,000 children, took investigators two years to complete. How much longer New Jersey will need is unclear.
“Our main concern remains the possibility of an ongoing public danger,” said Adam Horowitz, an attorney representing dozens of clergy abuse accusers in the state. “We’re concerned that dangerous predators who have been ousted from Catholic parishes are now volunteering at local schools, coaching soccer or teaching music lessons in their apartments one-on-one at night. ”
In the meantime, abuse survivors and their advocates continue to wait.
“We’re all upset that this hasn’t come to fruition yet,” said Crawford, the survivors advocacy group director for New Jersey. “Victims have come forward and poured out their souls. They constantly call me and want to know what’s going on with the report. Now they don’t believe anything will happen. It creates distrust of our legal system.”
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