Caught in the Crisis: A Bronx church responds to news of clergy abuse

Father George Stewart’s announcement to his congregation

One Sunday morning in September, before there could be prayer, Father George Stewart began the mass with an announcement.

Stewart, in a green and white robe, stood before the congregation of Saint Augustine and Our Lady of Victory, a Catholic Church in the South Bronx.

Robert Jeffers, a priest who had served at the church for 26 years, had been found guilty of sexual abuse by an independent board set up by the Catholic Church. Jeffers would no longer serve as a priest.

“Someone might think later on: I was married by Father Jeffers. Am I married now? And the answer is yes,” said Stuart.

Stuart assured the parish the guilty finding did not desecrate any duties Jeffers carried out during his time at St. Augustine, where Jeffers was priest between 1969 and 1995.

The announcement came from the Archdiocese of New York. The independent board that it set up, called the Lay Review Board, consists of judges, attorneys, psychiatrists and child-care experts.

The board examined the evidence and found the allegations of sexual abuse against Jeffers, “credible and substantiated.”

Since the first set of breaking stories of clergy abuse by the Boston Globe in 2002, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has seen mounting allegations against priests who serve in their institutions. Most recently, a grand jury in Pennsylvania found that over 300 priests had abused minors for 70 years.

“It is difficult to be Catholic, no?” asked Stuart as he opened his sermon.

A portrait of of Robert Jeffers (top left corner) in the 125th anniversary souvenir for Saint Augustine Church in 1974

A woman who sat alongside the children’s choir, nodded in agreement.

The priest continued to acknowledge the questions of the congregation. He also articulated his own personal struggles of walking down the street in his clergy collar. Once, he was scoffed at for buying food for a group of young boys. Another time, he was asked if he was abusing children.

For the majority of allegations of sexual abuse against Catholic priests, the statute of limitations prevents them from being pursued in a criminal court.

There are very few “contemporary complaints,” according to Ed Mechmann, a priest and attorney who has been director of the child protection program that conducts background checks and provides safety training for the Archdiocese of New York since 2005.

Most cases originated from the 1970’s to the 1990’s, Mechmann said, adding he had just spoken with a victim of clergy abuse that morning.

When a crime is outside the statute of limitations, it is no longer under the jurisdiction of the court.

In the fall of 2016, Kenneth R. Feinberg, a mediator, and his associate, Camille Biros, were requested by the Archdiocese of New York to set up a program to bring “healing and closure” to victim survivors through compensation.

The Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP) is  separate from the Archdiocese of New York, said Biros, who is also looking into cases in the dioceses of Brooklyn, Buffalo, Syracuse and Rockville Centre

So far, the IRCP has investigated 1,254 cases and found nearly all of them, 1,168, to be criminal in nature.

According to Biros every single one of these cases fall outside the statute of limitations.

The archdiocese of New York is paying compensation to victim-survivors, but it is not as much as they could potentially get in a court of law, Biros said.

“It at least gives the victims something,” she said.

As for the perpetrator-priest, he is expelled by the Cardinal of the Archdiocese, who acts as a chief priest.

It’s like being fired from a job. The priest is not laicized or does not lose his clergy status until the Holy See or the central government of Catholic Churches in Rome, examines the files prepared by the expelling authority or Archdiocese.

The files are lengthy, and the process can be long.

Meanwhile, the priests are outside the jurisdiction of the state archdiocese and can no longer live in the rectory or the local church office.

“A lot of guys are retired and in nursing homes. Very often they go and find their families,”, said Mechmann, about expelled priests.

When Jeffers left Saint Augustine Church, he worked as a chaplain in Bronx Lebanon Hospital and retired in 2007. According to church protocol, a notice that he committed clergy abuse and his consequent dismissal was made to the institutions where he had previously worked.

The news of the abuse and his dismissal was also printed in the church’s weekly newsletter.

At Sunday morning mass, Stewart told his congregation that it was going to get worse before it got better.

“You are going to be weary of being a catholic” he said.

The parish of Saint Augustine has always been known for its music, especially under Jeffers. In 1990, New York Magazine called him “the music man.” At the time, Jeffers had started the school of arts at Saint Augustine to prevent the church from closing.

But the church eventually fell into disrepair and was merged with Our Lady of Victory.

In September, the New York State attorney general subpoenaed all eight dioceses in the state for internal documents related to abuse of minors.

Mechmann’s office is compiling “tens of thousands of documents dating back to 1950” in response to the subpoenas.

“If we have priests in ministry who are committing these terrible acts, they should be removed. If there are victims who want someone to listen, they should be heard,” Mechmann said

Bradford Hinze, President of the Catholic Theological Society of America, called for a broader discussion about sexuality, celibacy, women leadership and accountability of bishops. He said the subpoenas have a “narrow focus” since they only deal with the legal aspect.

“The culture of secrecy is now being documented widely. I have no doubt that there will be more revelations than before,” Hinze said.

After the service, Maria Thomas clutched the hand of her four-year-old son, as they descended the steps of the church.

“I am very happy that all of this is coming to light”, she said about the clergy abuse investigations. She said she was pleased with Stuart’s response to the news about Jeffers and called Stuart a “good priest”.

Among those gathering in groups to chat outside church, was a woman in a yellow dress and matching headdress.

“I was his secretary. I’m heartbroken. I’m in shock”, said Denise Wang. Over and over she dismissed that Jeffers could have ever touched a child.

“I’ve got to be on crack if this is true, she said. “Someone in the clergy is jealous”.

In an interview, Stewart said that for a long-time people didn’t want to believe that someone they trusted could be capable of child-abuse, an act he considers “demonic”.

He called the explosion of allegations in the Catholic Church a “movement”, and compared it to the “Me Too” movement. According to him, society’s growing intolerance towards sexual abuse shows that we are moving forward.

As Stuart sat in in his rectory, against the backdrop of classical baroque paintings of biblical stories, he reflected on the historical journey of the Catholic Church.

“The church has had many black eyes. We had to go through the Galileo event”

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