on October 28, 2013 at 6:54 PM, updated October 29, 2013 at 6:48 AM
The pastor of a Roman Catholic church in Hillsborough has been removed from ministry over allegations that he sexually abused a child in the late 1970s.
The Rev. Msgr. Raymond L. Cole, 70, who leads St. Joseph Parish in the Somerset County community, was an associate pastor at St. Mary Parish in South Amboy when the alleged abuse occurred, according to a letter read aloud during weekend Masses at St. Joseph.
Metuchen Bishop Paul Bootkoski wrote in the letter that Cole “steadfastly denies the charges against him.” At the same time, the bishop wrote, canon law requires the removal of a priest when an allegation of sexual abuse “has been deemed to have a semblance of truth.”
Bootkoski said he was alerted to the allegation by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, which did not pursue criminal charges because the statute of limitations had long since passed.
A retired investigator from the prosecutor’s office looked into the claim on behalf of the diocese. The Diocesan Review Board, a panel of lay people and clergy members who examine sex abuse allegations — also investigated the matter, interviewing Cole and the alleged victim, Bootkoski said.
“Both the investigator and the review board reported to me that they found the information and circumstances surrounding the allegation were not frivolous,” Bootkoski wrote.
The bishop said he planned to forward the case to the Vatican and that it was likely Cole would receive a canonical trial.
The letter did not identify the gender of the accuser or say how old he or she was when the alleged incidents occurred. It also did not address when Bootkoski first learned of the claim.
“Until now, I was aware of nothing in Msgr. Cole’s past suggestive of inappropriate behavior,” Bootkoski wrote.
Cole, who has been a priest for 41 years, could not be reached for comment.
He was removed from ministry Friday, the same day Bootkoski distributed the letter to priests of the diocese. The bishop’s note can be found in its entirety here.
Erin Friedlander, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said Cole is now staying with relatives. He will continue to receive his salary while the case is investigated, Bootkoski wrote.
“Let us be earnest in our prayers for Msgr. Cole at this most difficult time in his priesthood, for all who are victims of mistreatment by those who represent the church, and for all the church’s efforts to eradicate the terrible scourge of sexual abuse from the body of Christ,” the bishop wrote.
Calls to deacons, staff and parishioners at St. Joseph were not immediately returned Monday.
Parish websites typically carry a biography of a pastor or a weekly pastor’s message, but there was little trace of Cole on the St. Joseph website Monday, suggesting the parish or the diocese deleted information and photos ahead of the priest’s removal.
What is known from various online publications of the diocese is that he served for a time as executive director of the diocesan Department of Pastoral Life and that he worked on issues of policy, including how to address the shortage of Catholic priests.
Earlier this month, he was scheduled to preside over the Diocesan Youth Mass in Piscataway. It could not immediately be determined if he attended.
The Diocese of Metuchen is home to more than 630,000 Roman Catholics in Hunterdon, Somerset, Warren and Middlesex counties