EL PASO, Texas - Authorities say a retired New Jersey priest has been charged with engaging in unwanted sexual contact with a man after officiating at a wedding.
Morris County prosecutors say the Rev. Philip Briganti, who now lives in El Paso, Texas, returned to New Jersey to officiate at a wedding Nov. 9 in the town of Prospect Park.
Prosecutors say the alleged sexual contact occurred while the 67-year-old priest was on a bus trip to a hotel after the wedding reception.
They say they were notified of the allegation of by the Paterson Diocese, where Briganti had served before retiring. The diocese has suspended his right to perform ministerial duties.
According to a report on NJ.com, the Diocese of Paterson also informed the Diocese of El Paso, which also revoked his priestly faculties, and the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, according to its statement.
Prosecutors say Briganti is still in Texas and not in custody. They did not know if he had hired an attorney yet.
He's charged with one count of criminal sexual contact.
Briganti was listed as parochial vicar at St. Raphael parish, according to the Catholic Diocese of El Paso's website, up until Friday afternoon.
He previously worked as at chaplain at Fort Bliss where he was head of its religious operations and was featured on CNN's Heroes of War in 2003.
The El Paso diocese released this statement on Briganti:
Fr. Phil Briganti, a priest of the Diocese of Peterson, N.J., has been living in El Paso and working as an extern. When the Diocese of El Paso learned of the alleged incident involving Fr. Phil Briganti, the Bishop of the Diocese of Patterson was immediately notified. The Diocese of Paterson immediately reported the alleged incident to local authorities. Fr. Briganti's own bishop placed him immediately on administrative leave and suspended his priestly faculties. Fr. Briganti is forbidden from exercising any priestly duties in the Diocese of El Paso. Because a criminal investigation involving Fr. Briganti is ongoing, all further inquiries about the case should be directed to the Morris County prosecutor's Office.
It is a priority of Bishop (Mark) Seitz to insure that any instances of sexual abuse by priests or religious in the Diocese are promptly reported in accordance with Texas law or the given civil jurisdiction and thoroughly investigated. Priests or religious, or for that matter, any employee of this Diocese who is determined to have engaged in sexual abuse will be removed from his or her ministry.
Rev. Anthony C. Celino, J.C.L.
Vicar General / Moderator of the Curia
Below is CNN.com's article on Briganti from 2003:
One week, he whispered prayers to a grief-stricken mother burying her soldier son. The next, his ears hurt from the roars of a crowd cheering the return of former prisoners of war.
In his role as chaplain, Lt. Col. Philip Briganti was a voice of comfort for families at Fort Bliss Army post whose loved ones will never come home from Iraq. And he was the person who helped give thanks when rescued soldiers came back.
Ft. Bliss had nine of its soldiers killed in the war and six who where POWs belonged to the post.
"I reached some of my lowest lows and also some of my most joyful moments," said Briganti, 56, who became a Catholic priest 30 years ago. "In all cases, I turned the families to God. That is my bottom-line answer. ... Even in the moments of darkest dread, God's light is there. You just have to be open to see it."
As head of religious operations at the sprawling 12,000-soldier post in El Paso, Texas, Briganti's mission is to provide religious support to soldiers and their families.
During the war, he organized weekly meetings to pray for peace, accompanied officers who told relatives that their loved ones were gone, and spent time counseling friends and relatives of POWs.
He "was right in there, doing all the things that families and soldiers needed," Fort Bliss spokeswoman Jean Offutt said.
Growing up, Briganti said, he had sometimes considered joining the military, following in the footsteps of his father, a World War II veteran. But after he became a priest at 26, he thought he'd never serve.
It wasn't until nine years later that he and his religious superiors agreed that he might be well-suited for a chaplain position.
He was nominated and, after passing basic training, he joined the Army. Even though chaplains are considered noncombatants and are forbidden to carry weapons, they accompany troops into battle.
"I'm expected to be there where the soldiers are," said Briganti, who was deployed with troops to Kuwait in 1996 and Egypt in 1990.
Although part of him wishes he could have accompanied the units sent to Iraq, he said he's glad he was able to offer spiritual guidance to those who stayed behind, helping them search for deeper spiritual meanings amid the sorrows of war.
Drawing the connection between war and faith, Briganti said his Easter Sunday services beckoned the largest crowd he had seen in three decades.
"We here at Fort Bliss have had an incredible experience: an experience of death, and, now, an experience of rebirth," he told a Chicago Tribune reporter after the Easter Mass.
"Our faith is what enables people here to look at death and face it. We can still hope for tomorrow."
CNN Note: In every war there are acts of extraordinary courage where an individual, military or civilian, goes beyond what is expected to avert conflict, save lives or otherwise achieve an extraordinary mission. This special section highlights the acts of a few individuals who -- through feats of courage, nobility of purpose or life-risking situations -- have become "Heroes of War."