CINNAMINSON — Times may have changed but a former priest accused of having a sexual affair with an underage girl in the 1980s still has his job as a middle school teacher in this district.

An arbitrator for the state Department of Education has ordered the district to return English teacher Joseph DeShan back to the classroom despite protests by parents worried about his troubling past.

The arbitrator’s April 2 decision says the district had no basis to file tenure charges against DeShan because officials provided no proof that he did anything wrong while he’s been employed in their schools.

DeShan was suspended from his position earlier this school year for the second time in his nearly 21-year career in Cinnaminson. In both cases, the suspensions were the result of the same reports of his sexual affair with an underage girl in the 1980s when he was in his late 20s and a priest in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut. The woman, who first told her story when she was an adult, said the sex began when she was 14 and continued until DeShan impregnated her when she was 15 or 16.

From published reports, DeShan appears to have never publicly denied the relationship but he was never charged with a crime because the woman went public with her story after Connecticut’s statute of limitations on sex crimes had run out. The legal age of consent in both states is 16 unless the adult is in a position of authority.

DeShan could not be reached for comment for this story and New Jersey 101.5 did not know whether he had an attorney who could speak on his behalf.

In his challenge to the tenure charges, DeShan argued that they are based on “hearsay, rumor, and innuendo” from parents who found old news reports about him. The arbitrator agreed with him, dismissing the charges because they were based on “alleged hearsay complaints from parents and on pre-employment conduct that was addressed by the BOE 16 years ago.”

Past conduct comes to light

When Connecticut newspapers first published stories about DeShan in 2002, he had already left the priesthood after admitting to fathering a child in violation of his celibacy vow. He also was already employed in Cinnaminson.

Administrators at the time suspended him but returned him to the classroom after about three weeks, citing overwhelming support for DeShan from the community.

Seventeen years later, DeShan is teaching a new generation of students and facing a different set of administrators and parents who, this time around, are not willing to overlook his past.

In the nearly two decades since DeShan’s first suspension, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have swept the nation, forcing workplaces and institutions — including the Catholic Churchto reexamine not only how the survivors of sexual harassment and abuse are treated but also how such misconduct is defined in the first place.

Even before #MeToo, lawmakers and advocates have been working to eliminate or expand statutes of limitations for both crimes and lawsuits in sex abuse cases, pointing to research showing that victims often take years to come to terms with their abuse.

The movement has felled cultural giants like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, and radio stations have stopped playing songs by Michael Jackson for accusations that, even before his death, prosecutors and fans had long moved on from.

Fighting tenure

But in DeShan’s case, public opinion is no match for the state’s tenure laws, which are designed to protect teachers from threats like age discrimination, political intimidation and arbitrary administrators. Educators are awarded tenure after four years.

That does not mean that a teacher can never be fired. Teachers can lose their credentials if they are convicted of certain crimes, including all violent and drug offenses. Teachers have had their credentials suspended or revoked after being accepted into Drug Court or the court’s pre-trial intervention program, which clears a defendant’s criminal record of conviction if they stay out of trouble. Even a shoplifting charge can imperil an educator.

And teachers don’t have to be arrested or convicted to lose their jobs or credentials. A teacher recently lost his job in part because he wrote a blog describing graphic gay sexual encounters and was seen drinking alcohol at a private party.

In the DeShan case, however, arbitrator Walt De Treux said administrators could not point to any past criminal convictions or wrongdoing while he was a teacher.

The tenure charges cite a single example accusing DeShan of making a student feel uncomfortable by complimenting her green eyes, but De Treux says administrators could not explain why that was wrong.

The arbitrator also faulted the district for not keeping a paper trail documenting who the girl reported her complaint to, whether it was investigated or how it contributed to any “substantial disruption to the educational process.”

“In short, the evidence in support of the current conduct – the alleged comment is the only incident cited – is clearly based on hearsay,” the arbitrator says.

“The fact that some parents now demand his removal from the classroom does not give the BOE a second opportunity to revisit pre-employment conduct of which it has been long aware," the arbitration decision says. "The charges do not cite to inappropriate conduct other than conduct that was already addressed by the Board in 2002 when it learned of the reemployment conduct.”

Reporting on Joseph DeShan by the New York Times in 2002. (New York Times archives)

'Parents seem untroubled'

In 2002, the district’s lawyers could find no basis to fire DeShan because he had done nothing wrong while he had been employed for the district.

Moreover, Cinnaminson’s superintendent at the time, Salvatore Illuzi, told the New York Times that DeShan was married with two more children and was popular in the district, adding that more parents had written letters supporting DeShan than opposing him.

The mayor at the time, Bill Kollar, said that “parents seemed untroubled by the reports about Mr. DeShan's past,” the Times wrote.

"If indeed, if the community has given him this much support, let him go ahead,” the mayor was quoted as saying.

Fast-forward to Oct. 16, 2018, and a school board meeting attended by angry and concerned parents that night shows that public opinion had changed.

The Cinnaminson Sun, which covered the meeting, quoted a parent who said her daughter had told her about a teacher being a rapist. The mother said she didn't believe her daughter but then had to apologize when she learned she was right.

“I had to educate my daughter and tell her I was sorry that I dismissed her story and I had to teach her what a rapist was, what a pedophile was,” the Sun quoted her as saying.

Officials relied in large part on the public comments from that meeting when they filed the tenure charges against DeShan in December for conduct unbecoming a staff member.

The charges were based on “many parents” coming forward to request “that their children be removed from DeShan’s class.”

“Because of DeShan’s prior conduct, students do not trust their teacher, and are talking about their teacher being a ‘rapist,’” the tenure charges said.

Parents said they want their children to feel safe “and a person with his history should not be around children,” officials charged. Other parents called him a “pedophile” and were concerned because the girl he impregnated was about the same age as their children, the tenure charges argued.

One child said he found him “creepy” and her parent wanted her child removed from his classroom, officials said in their complaint.

The arbitrator was unconvinced, ordering that the district reinstate DeShan back to his $91,000 a year job with full backpay and benefits.

It is not clear whether the district intends to appeal to the state commissioner of education or whether DeShan has returned to the classroom. Schools superintendent Stephen Cappello declined to answer questions about the case on Monday.

“Your inquiry relates to an open personnel matter and it’s our district policy to refrain from comment on such matters,” Cappello said in an email. “The well-being of our entire school community is always our highest priority. The district will release a statement when we have information that can be shared publicly.”

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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