HILLSBOROUGH: Cleared of abuse charges, St. Joseph’s priest is reinstated  

Parishioners of St. Joseph Parish in Hillsborough learned Sunday that their longtime pastor, Msgr. Raymond L. Cole, has been cleared by an ecclesiastical tribunal of charges of sexual abuse of a minor more than three decades ago.
Msgr Cole was removed from the parish in late October 2013 because of an allegation he sexually abused a minor in the late 1970s when he was assigned as an associate pastor at St. Mary Parish in South Amboy.
A tribunal of three priests from outside the Diocese of Metuchen recently returned a verdict of not guilty. The tribunal is deemed expert in the church’s law and experienced in the church’s judicial process.
“I am satisfied that they conducted the trial in an impartial and professional manner,” the Most Rev. Paul G. Bootkoski, the bishop of Metuchen, wrote in a letter read to parishioners Sunday.
“While there can be neither victory nor victor in a situation such as this, the outcome of the trial means that Msgr. Cole is again a priest in good standing in the diocese and I hope this decision will be the first step in fully restoring his reputation,” the bishop said.
The church said Msgr. Cole fully cooperated during the investigation of the charges “and never displayed any animosity toward his accuser or the process,” the letter said.
Msgr. Cole has decided to resign his position as pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish. However, he will continue to minister to the people of the Diocese of Metuchen in a different capacity.
A diocesean spokesperson said, over the years, Msgr. Cole has shown interest in the Diocese of Metuchen’s sister diocese, the Diocese of Santa Rosa, in Guatemala, and spent considerable time there while on sabbatical a few years ago.
Msgr. Cole has received permission from Bishop Bootkoski to take an intensive course of study in the Spanish language in Guatemala, and when he returns he will assist the diocese in area of Hispanic ministry.
Father “Hank” Hilton who will remain at St. Joseph’s parish for the foreseeable future. Bishop Bootkoski will celebrate Mass with Msgr. Cole and the St. Joseph Parish community on Saturday, Dec. 12.
The bishop said that “Msgr. Cole’s decision to put the stability of the parish before his personal preference and not return to St. Joseph Parish as pastor is to be commended and viewed as a clear sign of his abiding affection for the community, which he shepherded for three decades.
“I have no doubt that his desire to be involved in the critical area of Hispanic ministry will contribute greatly to the overall mission of the Diocese in the years to come,” said the bishop.
Bishop Bootkoski said he was “most grateful for the patience and support” shown by the parish community and Msgr. Cole’s family and friends over the last two years.
“The wheels of justice in the church, like those in our secular society, sometimes turn more slowly than we would like,” the bishop wrote. “At the same time, swift justice is not always perfect justice.”
He called for “earnest prayers for Msgr. Cole, for all our priests, for all parishioners of St. Joseph’s parish and, most especially, for all who are victims of the evil of sexual abuse.”
Church law requires a priest be removed from the ministry as a precautionary measure when an allegation of sexual abuse “has been deemed to have a semblance of truth,” the church said in 2013.
Then and now, Cole steadfastly denies the charges against him.
Following an investigation by a retired investigator for the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, and a Diocesan Review board, a majority layperson body, the bishop accepted their conclusions that the information and circumstances “were not frivolous.” 