N.J. school can’t fire ex-priest who impregnated a 16-year-old 30 years ago, ruling says

Joseph DeShan (Cinnaminson Middle School)

Joseph DeShan (Cinnaminson Middle School)

A longtime Burlington County teacher who had a baby with a 16-year-old girl when he was a Catholic priest nearly 30 years ago should not be terminated for his conduct, a New Jersey arbitrator has ruled.

The Cinnaminson Board of Education recently filed tenure charges against Joseph DeShan for his past. He began having sex with the the girl when she was 14 or 15. That was considered statutory rape under state law in Connecticut, where the incident took place.

The district also said DeShan more recently made a comment to a female student about her “pretty green eyes” that she reported made her feel “uncomfortable.”

But the arbitrator, Walt De Treux, pointed out the district first learned of DeShan’s history in 2002, suspended him for three weeks, and returned him to the classroom. Citing case law, De Treux said the district cannot now fire DeShan for conduct it has known about for years and which happened before he was employed by the school.

“The BOE has not alleged that respondent engaged in any inappropriate conduct while holding public employment,” De Treux wrote in the ruling. The charge about the inappropriate comment, he added, was based on “hearsay.”

DeShan is a 6th grade reading teacher in the district’s middle school, according to the district’s website.

DeShan did not return a message seeking comment. Cinnaminson Superintendent Stephen Cappello said in an email the district is “disappointed” with the ruling and is working with an attorney to explore next steps.

Cappello did not indicate if the district would appeal the ruling or whether DeLong is currently teaching students.

The ruling, dated April 2, was first reported by New Jersey 101.5 FM.

According to a 2002 report in the Hartford Courant, DeShan was around 29 years old in 1988 when he began sexual contact with a 15-year-old member of a youth group at the cathedral where he worked in Bridgeport, Conn.

After she became pregnant at age 16, DeShan requested a leave of absence and he lived with the girl in Vermont and then at his parents’ home in New Jersey, the Courant reported. The girl later moved back to Connecticut.

The Diocese of Bridgeport includes DeShan on its list of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse, citing a single allegation from his time working in Connecticut. He left the priesthood around 1994 and became a Cinnaminson teacher in 1996, the arbitrator wrote in his ruling.

The ruling says the sexual contact with the girl began when she was 14 (though local reporting in Connecticut says she was 15).

District under pressure from parents

The district has come under pressure from parents to remove DeShan from the classroom. As described in the ruling, parents at a board of education meeting in October said their children do not trust the teacher and have referred to him as “creepy” and a “rapist.”

They also raised concerns that DeShan is assigned to teach students roughly the same age as the young woman he impregnated.

In its tenure charges, the district also cited a comment DeShan recently made to a female student.

“Look at me. Let me see your pretty green eyes. You don’t see them too much anymore,” DeShan reportedly said. The student said DeShan made the remark in a “weird voice” and it made her feel “uncomfortable.”

But De Treux, the arbitrator, said DeShan’s explanation of the context for the comment “strips it of any inappropriate interpretation.” De Treux also said the district did not document who the student reported the comment to or how it came to the administration’s attention. It thus amounted to hearsay and was not grounds for termination.

Mark Crawford, a survivor of clergy abuse and now the New Jersey director for the organization Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said it is “reckless” for DeShan to be allowed to keep his teaching job despite his past conduct.

“It’s just beyond common sense that we can turn around and say nobody’s at risk now,” Crawford said. “I don’t think it should matter that this occurred prior to his employment with the current school board. If that’s the case, then what’s wrong with say, a scout leader, who abuses in a certain community and then moves on to somewhere else?”

This story has been updated to include a response from Cinnaminson Superintendent Stephen Cappello.

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