A Catholic priest who previously served as the chaplain of Oratory Preparatory School in Summit has been arrested and charged with engaging in a pattern of behavior that threatened the welfare of six students, acting Union County Prosecutor Lyndsay V. Ruotolo announced Thursday.
This arrest was made by members of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office assigned to the New Jersey Clergy Abuse Task Force, which was formed by Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal in September 2018 to investigate allegations of clergy abuse. This is the fourth priest to be charged in criminal cases filed by the task force.
Salvatore DiStefano, 61, who has recently resided at Our Lady of Peace Roman Catholic Church on South Street in New Providence, is 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 charges are the result of an investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office’s Special Victims Unit (SVU) into 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,” according to SVU Supervisor and Union County Assistant Prosecutor Caroline Lawlor, who is prosecuting the case. According to the investigation, as the leader of the group, DiStefano engaged in a pattern of conduct that endangered the welfare of the club’s members.
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 showed that DiStefano would give his personal cell phone number to club members, routinely texting and calling them outside of school hours, and instructing them to save his contact in their phones as “Malta” in order to conceal his identity, Lawlor said.
The investigation revealed that, at various points in late 2019, “Father Sal,” as he was known to students, would allow his teenaged victims to consume edible items infused with marijuana in his office. He also allegedly purchased tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) cartridges, which students would smoke in DiStefano’s office while he was present, and provided students money so they could purchase such items for themselves.
DiStefano also took actions designed 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. These alleged efforts included convincing one student to post false negative information about the other student on social media. In another instance, when DiStefano learned that the former club member was hosting a party, he allegedly instructed current club members to plan a party for the same night so that no one would show up, ordering them to make a list of alcohol they wanted so he could buy it for them.
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.
In announcing the arrest, Ruotolo stated: “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.”
DiStefano was arrested without incident on Thursday and charged pending a first appearance and detention hearing scheduled to take place in Superior Court.
The Archdiocese of Newark and Oratory Preparatory School each cooperated with the Prosecutor’s Office in its investigation.
Anyone with information regarding DiStefano’s activities is urged to contact Prosecutor’s Office Lieutenant Timothy Durkin at 973-698-9529.
When Attorney General Grewal formed the Clergy Abuse Task Force in September 2018, he established a Clergy Abuse Hotline – 855-363-6548 – which is staffed by trained professionals and operated on a 24/7 basis. More than 600 calls have been received through the hotline to date.
Convictions on second-degree criminal offenses are commonly punishable by 5 to 10 years in state prison, while third-degree crimes can result in terms of 3 to 5 years.
These criminal charges are mere accusations. Every defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.