TRENTON — Catholic Church officials are reacting to a New Jersey lawmaker's call for the state to impanel a grand jury and embark on a comprehensive investigation of potential sex-abuse by clergy.

State Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, on Thursday said he wants the state Attorney General's Office to probe whether "generations of hidden sexual abuse" happened in New Jersey just as a 900-page Pennsylvania grand jury investigation found in that state.

The Pennsylvania report released this month detailed accusations against 300 Catholic clergy by more than 1,000 victims over 70 years. The report faulted generations of coverups by prelates as well as feeble police investigations and prosecutions.

Four of the clergy members named in the report had ties to New Jersey while others were accused of abusing children during trips to New Jersey.

The church in New Jersey has paid out at least $60 million in recent decades to sex-abuse accusers, according to the Archdiocese of Newark and published reports.

Sharon Lauchaire, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, said that the office does not confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation.

AP File

“We are reviewing the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the work undertaken by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office to determine what, if any, additional actions are appropriate in New Jersey," she said.

"Abuse victims should be able to directly report abuse to the Office of the Attorney General. We are working to establish a dedicated hotline as quickly as possible similar to the one that currently exists for victims of human trafficking."

The New Jersey Catholic Conference responded Thursday by saying that "New Jersey is not Pennsylvania."

"Since 2002, the Catholic Church in New Jersey has complied with a Memorandum of Understanding with the Attorney General and all 21 County Prosecutors under which every complaint is forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement agency," Executive Director Patrick R. Brannigan said.

In a statement titled "Preventing the Sexual Abuse of Children," the conference said that the church in the state "has committed substantial resources to prevent any abuse of any child at any time by any person. Each diocese has comprehensive policies in place both to respond to complaints and to prevent the sexual abuse of minors. These safety policies and practices are regularly verified by an external audit of each diocese."

"We regret that in decades past, some in the Church failed in their responsibility to protect children," the statement adds. "However, today, no institution, public or private, has done more to prevent abuse than the Catholic Church in New Jersey."

The document outlines policies for the prevention of abuse and responding to allegations:

PREVENTION OF ABUSE
Safe Environment: All New Jersey dioceses have fully implemented comprehensive “safe environment” education programs and have together, over the past fifteen years, trained more than 2.3 million adults, children, employees, clergy and volunteers.

Background Checks: The dioceses conduct background evaluations for all diocesan and parish personnel who have regular contact with minors. Over the past fifteen years, some 380,000 criminal background checks have been completed.

RESPONSE TO ALLEGATIONS OF ABUSE
Prompt reporting to Civil Authorities: All of the New Jersey Catholic dioceses have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Attorney General and the County Prosecutors to facilitate the immediate intervention of law enforcement whenever there is any allegation that a minor is being sexually abused. The dioceses also promptly report all past allegations of abuse to public authorities, whether the person bringing the complaint is now an adult, no matter how long ago the abuse is alleged to have occurred, and whether or not the accused is living or deceased.

Zero Tolerance/Permanent Removal from Ministry: When sexual abuse of a minor by a priest, deacon, employee, or volunteer is established, diocesan policies provide that the offending priest, deacon, employee, or volunteer is to be permanently removed from ministry, employment, or volunteer service and that any such offending clergy may not be transferred to another diocese.

Therapeutic and Pastoral Response: Each diocese has a Victim Assistance Coordinator, who facilitates the provision of counseling and other professional assistance to help those who have been abused. In addition, all victims have the opportunity to meet with the bishop in order to facilitate healing.

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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