Impregnated child but still teaching in NJ: Advocates fault limits on the law
CINNAMINSON — A national organization representing sex-abuse survivors is calling on Catholic Church officials to help oust a defrocked priest who was once accused of impregnating an underage girl but who now works in this public school district.
New Jersey 101.5 reported on Monday that a state Department of Education arbitrator blocked the district from firing middle school English teacher Joseph DeShan after parents raised concerns with his past.
The arbitration decision this month said officials could not fire DeShan unless he was convicted of a crime or has done something wrong while employed by the district.
David Clohessy, a past president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said church officials have the "duty" to "warn people about him and beg witnesses and whistleblowers to come forward."
"Victims aren’t inclined to break years or decades of silence unless they’re confident that somebody is really paying attention and someone will take action," he said Tuesday.
"Bishops [need to] stand there in the pulpit and say: Please, if you have any information that might help law enforcement pursue a case against DeShan, it’s your Christian duty, it’s your civic duty to pick up the phone and call 911."
Earlier this school year, the district suspended DeShan — the second time it has done so since 2002, when officials first learned that DeShan had impregnated a 15-year-old girl while he was a priest in the late 1990s in Connecticut. But officials in 2002 could find no cause to fire DeShan, who also had support from parents. Seventeen years later, DeShan no longer has support from a new set of administrators and parents.
DeShan was never charged with a crime. Connecticut’s five-year statute of limitation on sex crimes had already run out by the time the mother of his child came forward in 2002.
Clohessy said he was outraged by the arbitration decision, calling it "another reminder of why archaic, arbitrary, predator-friendly statutes of limitations must be repealed."
New Jersey eliminated the criminal statute of limitations for sex crimes in 1996, making it retroactive to 1991, although the state still limits filing a lawsuit for two years after the victim first realizes that they were victimized. The Legislature last month passed a bill that extends the limit to seven years, or by the victim's 55th birthday, but it has not been signed into law.
The proposed law change is based on research showing that child victims often take years to acknowledge their abuse, sometimes after seeking therapy for other problems later in life such as marital strife.
“Most kids don’t even define what happened to them as something that was wrong or criminal. They define it as creepy or awkward,” Clohessy said Tuesday. “But it takes decades before victims are able to understand that what happened to them was severe and hurtful and illegal and that it still impacts them and that they can and should take some steps to recover and to help other people.”
According to published reports in 2002, the then-28-year-old woman said she gave birth to DeShan’s child in 1989, two months after turning 16. The age of consent in Connecticut as in New Jersey is 16 as long as the adult is not in a position of authority.
The girl was a member of a church youth group and says she was fired from her church job days after she told DeShan that she was pregnant, the Hartford Courant reported.
Edward Egan, who was the bishop of Bridgeport at the time of the pregnancy and later became cardinal and archbishop of New York, denied in 2002 that he knew that the girl was underage at the time of the affair and that he did not know about the affair until five years later, when DeShan sought to leave the priesthood.
DeShan’s name appears in a Diocese of Bridgeport list of “Credibly Accused Clergy […] on whose behalf settlements were paid regarding an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor.” DeShan's victim, who was not identified in public court records, was among 40 people who accused 16 priests in the diocese of sexual abuse when they were children. The 40 victims in 2003 received a combined $20 million settlement.
A statement from SNAP on Tuesday said the arbitrator’s decision “flies in the face of common sense [and] it may also endanger more innocent lives.”
“Catholic officials in both New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as school officials, should use every means available to seek out others who may have been hurt by the former priest, or who may have witnessed or suspected abuse, and encourage them to call police,” the organization said. “With more information, it is possible that there may well be crimes for which Mr. DeShan could still be prosecuted. We hope that law enforcement officials in both states will to do likewise.”
DeShan could not be reached for comment. Schools superintendent Stephen Cappello has declined to say whether DeShan has been returned to the classroom, as the arbitrator demanded, or whether the district intends to appeal the decision to the state commissioner of education.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.