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CNA Staff, Oct 5, 2020 / 12:01 pm (CNA).- Fr. Salvatore DiStefano, a former boys’ prep school chaplain in New Jersey, was charged Thursday with use of children to commit a crime, and child endangerment.

“I want to recognize Attorney General Grewal’s Clergy Abuse Task Force and our Special Victims Unit for exhaustively and professionally investigating this case. The conduct unearthed by our investigative team represents an egregious and total betrayal of trust by a person who was supposed to be helping young men, not hurting them; conduct that might have gone unchecked but for their efforts,” acting Union County prosecutor Lyndsay Ruotolo said Oct. 1.

Fr. DiStefano, 61, was chaplain of Oratory Preparatory School in Summit, N.J., 13 miles west of Newark, until he was suspended in January during the investigation. He had been chaplain at the school since at least 2012.

He was charged with five counts of second-degree use of a juvenile to commit a crime and six counts of third-degree endangering the welfare of a child.

The prosecutor’s office said his behavior had threatened the welfare of six students at Oratory Prep.

Fr. DiStefano’s “conduct as the leader of an official school club of about 30 hand-picked Oratory Prep students, known as the ‘Knights of Malta,’” had been investigated by the Special Victims Unit, according to the prosecutor’s office statement.

“For instance, the investigation revealed that DiStefano would frequently attempt to speak with the students about sex and instructed a student to masturbate in order to relieve stress. He also allegedly made repeated attempts to entice a student to accompany him away from the school alone and took steps to conceal that activity, for instance telling the student to leave his cell phone at school so that his true location would be hidden from his parents when he met with him off-campus.”

The investigation also found that the priest texted and called the club members routinely, and at various times in late 2019 he would let them consume cannabis edibles in his office, and allegedly bought THC cartridges for them, as well as providing them money to do so.

Fr. DiStefano allegedly encouraged students to bully others, intending “to maintain his control over the group.”

“At one point, according to the investigation, DiStefano attempted to convince multiple students to harass and otherwise intimidate a former Knights of Malta member who had been dismissed from the club, ordering them to make the victim’s daily life so difficult that he would quit school.”

For example, he allegedly convinced one student to spread rumours about another on social media, and had them plan a rival party so that no one would attend one being hosted by the former Knights of Malta member.

Prosecutors said that “when students or others expressed concerns about his conduct to DiStefano, he also allegedly took steps to cover up his activities, such as telling one victim to delete all of the text messages between them from his phone.”

Both the Archdiocese of Newark and Oratory Prep cooperated with prosecutors in their investigation.

The investigation was part of the effort of the New Jersey Clergy Abuse Task Force, which was announced in September 2018 to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic clerics in New Jersey.

The Union County prosecutor’s office said Fr. DiStefano is the fourth priest to have been charged in a criminal case filed by the task force.

The priest’s lawyer, Vincent J. Sanzone Jr., told The Star-Ledger that Fr. DiStefano is innocent of the charges, and noted, “he’s not charged with a sexual crime … it’s about students bullying each other, and it got out of control.”

When Fr. DiStefano was placed on leave amid the investigation in late Janury, NJ.com reported that a Newark archdiocese spokeswoman said that the archdiocese “takes very seriously any and all credible complaints of sexual misconduct or sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy, religious, lay staff and volunteers of the Archdiocese.”

According to NJ.com, Fr. DiStefano was an assistant principal in the New York City Public Schools and was a New York City police officer before being ordained a priest.

Prosecutors said the priest was recently residing at Our Lady of Peace parish in New Providence, which is adjacent to Summit.

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