Norberto Nierras says he saw the man with the shock of white hair all the time along Home Avenue, a residential block that teems with children from the Catholic elementary and high schools a few hundred yards away.
The man, Nierras said, came and went as he pleased, strolling the Rutherford neighborhood or sitting on a bench outside the four-story building he called home: the St. John Vianney Residence for Retired Priests.
What Nierras didn’t know is that the man, the Rev. Msgr. Peter Cheplic, had been accused of drugging and molesting four teenage boys in the 1970s and 1980s. Or that the Archdiocese of Newark found the claims credible enough to remove him from ministry in 2006.
Cheplic, who has denied the allegations, is one of at least seven alleged sexual predators quietly placed in the Rutherford retirement home in the past 15 years, The Star-Ledger found. Some lived there a short time. Others have stayed for years. Neighbors said they were never informed of the men’s presence until told by a reporter.
“Parents need to be made aware of this,” said Nierras, 25, who has lived across the street from St. John Vianney for more than three years. “There are kids around this area constantly. I’m pretty sure people would be upset. I’m upset.”
Eleven years after the nation’s bishops confronted the clergy sex abuse crisis, vowing at a landmark summit in Dallas to make the protection of children a priority and to open a new era of transparency, the church continues to wrestle with a host of vexing questions and competing interests.
Does a credibly accused priest’s privacy trump public safety? Is the church capable of supervising alleged abusers? Should such priests even remain under the church’s care, drawing a salary, room and board?
All of those questions apply to people like Cheplic, who was barred from public ministry but not criminally prosecuted because, by the time his accusers came forward, the deadline to charge him had expired under the statute of limitations. Across New Jersey’s five dioceses, dozens of priests are believed to be in the same sort of limbo.
They include diocesan priests and clerics of religious orders, such as the Christian Brothers and the Benedictines. And they include priests who were barred from ministry in other states and have moved to or returned to New Jersey.
One such priest, Robert Petrella, took up residence in North Arlington after two convictions for molesting children in Maryland, records show.
Precisely how many others there are — and where most of them live — remains unclear, because the state’s bishops, by and large, refuse to publicly discuss the matter.