The retired Archbishop of Washington, D.C., has been removed from public ministry over allegations he sexually abused a teenager while a priest in New York more than 40 years ago. (June 20)
A priest who grew up in New Jersey is alleging that he was sexually assaulted decades ago by two clergymen who continued working in the Newark Archdiocese after church officials determined his accusations to be believable but unproven.
The Rev. Desmond Rossi, a Garwood native, made the explosive assertions during a recent interview in which he discussed his experiences decades ago with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then head of the Newark Archdiocese, when Rossi was a seminary student. He and other seminarians heard about McCarrick’s inappropriate behavior at the time, he said, underscoring questions about how church leaders dealt with sex abuse allegations.
In 1988, he said, he considered leaving the Newark Archdiocese because he felt uncomfortable around McCarrick, who resigned from the College of Cardinals last week after allegations surfaced that he had sexually abused boys and adult seminarians over the course of nearly five decades.
That same year, Rossi said, two friends who were about to become priests sexually assaulted him in a Newark church. He then sought to be transferred to the Albany Diocese, where he now works as an associate pastor at a church in Glens Falls, New York.
“I lost all confidence in being able to be there safely,” he said of the Newark Archdiocese. He added that he didn’t talk to many people about his experiences because “I was ashamed; I was traumatized by it.”
He said he gathered the courage to go to church officials after other victims of clergy sex abuse began coming forward in 2002. By then, McCarrick had moved on to lead the Washington, D.C., Archdiocese. John Myers had succeeded him as archbishop of Newark.
Rossi, 56, provided the USA Today Network – New Jersey with a 2003 letter from the Newark Archdiocese saying a review board had found his accusations to be credible but that officials “were unable to substantiate the allegations.”
James Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese, confirmed those findings this week and said one of the accused priests has since died while the other remains in ministry. The USA Today Network – New Jersey is not naming them because no criminal charges have been filed and church officials did not discipline them.
On Monday, another priest supported Rossi’s assault allegations in an interview with USA Today Network – New Jersey. The priest, who works in the Albany Diocese and asked that his name not be used because he doesn’t want to be in the spotlight, said Rossi told him about the incident shortly after it happened.
Rossi said he gave the friend’s name to the review board. The friend said someone from the Archdiocese called him about the incident but that he couldn’t be sure of the person’s identity.
“I said ‘I’m not aware of anything’ because I didn’t know who I was talking to,” the friend said. “I was kind of paralyzed about how to respond.”
He said he didn’t receive a follow-up call or letter.
On Monday, he said, he called the Newark Archdiocese and left a voicemail message saying that he “wanted to substantiate the claim that Father Rossi made.”
Goodness said on Tuesday that he was aware of the message, but that he could not say whether the archdiocese would consider reopening the case. The witness, he said, was told in 2003 that Rossi had provided his phone number for the review board to call.
“The information he gave our review board member in 2003 clearly contradicts what he is now saying,” Goodness said. He added that the priests denied the allegations at the time and that the living priest “continues to deny it today.”
Rossi said in telephone interviews that the assaults and an uncomfortable 1988 encounter with McCarrick spurred him to leave the Newark Archdiocese. His disclosures are part of a national conversation about the accountability of church leaders that was ignited by sex abuse allegations against McCarrick.
Rossi’s superior, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of the Albany Diocese, issued a statement saying he supported the priest’s decision to share his experiences “to bring about his own healing and to stand in solidarity with other victims of abuse.”
The bishop said in another statement that the church’s efforts to protect children “did not go far enough so as to hold cardinals, archbishops and bishops equally, if not more, accountable than priests and deacons.”
Rossi said church officials failed to investigate McCarrick for decades.
McCarrick’s resignation followed allegations that he abused minors — and, among other things, that he pressured adult seminarians to share a bed with him at a beach house in Sea Girt that the Metuchen Diocese purchased while McCarrick was the bishop there.
Rossi said he doesn’t know anyone who went to a beach house with McCarrick, who moved from Metuchen to Newark in 1986. But, he said, a friend at Seton Hall’s Immaculate Conception Seminary received an invitation to join McCarrick and other seminarians at a beach house. The gathering was canceled, Rossi said.
He said he hadn’t had a great deal of contact with McCarrick so he was surprised when the prelate sent him a letter in 1987 while Rossi was taking time off from the seminary and living in Arizona. In the letter, a copy of which Rossi shared with The Record, McCarrick wrote that he hoped God would guide him back to Newark and that he was “still very much part of the family.”
After returning to New Jersey, Rossi said McCarrick paid a lot of attention to him and made him uncomfortable during a private meeting by putting an arm around him and a hand on one of his legs. He said he now believes he was being groomed. At the time, he said he was thinking, “I have to get out of here.”
He didn’t talk about those experiences until recently, when he also made the sexual assault allegations. They are tied together, he said, by a culture of secrecy that permeated the church at the time and allowed stories about sexual harassment by a prominent leader to go unchecked.
Rossi said he was unable to defend himself against the two larger men. “One grabbed me and threw me on the bed, and the other tried to perform oral sex on me,” he said.
He said he told his friend, the Albany Diocese priest, about the attack shortly after it occurred. The friend said Rossi told him about the attack “at the time that it happened.” He added that the men were much larger than Rossi, who told him: “I couldn’t stop them.”
Rossi said his experiences and an illness — he had a kidney transplant years ago — led him to take more than 15 years off from being a priest. He said he returned to work as a priest last year.
He said he didn’t know until recently that his friend had not testified before a diocesan review board. The two hadn’t been in contact for an extended period. That revelation, Rossi said, raised doubts about the thoroughness of the board’s examination of his allegations and other abuse cases.
“It poisoned the review,” he said. He added that while he received a letter telling him about the review board’s conclusion that his allegations were credible but could not be substantiated, he never was told how the board made its decision.
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