A priest and former chaplain of a North Jersey Catholic school was arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of six students, authorities announced Thursday.
Salvatore DiStefano, 61, who most recently resided at Our Lady of Peace Roman Catholic Church New Providence, is charged with engaging in a pattern of behavior that threatened the welfare of six Oratory Preparatory School students, acting Union County Prosecutor Lyndsay V. Ruotolo said.
DiStefano -- known to students as "Father Sal" -- was placed on leave last January pending an investigation.
He is the fourth priest to be charged in criminal cases filed by the Union County Prosecutor’s Office assigned to the New Jersey Clergy Abuse Task Force created by state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal in September 2018.
The charges stem from an investigation into DiStefano's conduct as the leader of the "Knights of Malta," an official club at the Oratory Preparatory School in Summit, Ruotolo said.
DiStefano often tried to speak with the 30 hand-picked students in the club about sex and instructed one to masturbate in order to relieve stress, SVU Supervisor and Union County Assistant Prosecutor Caroline Lawlor said.
"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," Lawlor said.
DiStefano gave his personal cell phone number to club members, routinely texting and calling them outside of school hours, authorities said. The priest told students to save his contact in their phones as “Malta” in order to conceal his identity, according to Lawlor.
Last year, the priest let teens eat edible marijuana items in his office, and bought tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) cartridges that he let students smoke in his office while he was there, authorities said.
DiStefano gave students money to purchase such items for themselves, Lawlor said.
"DiStefano also took actions designed to maintain his control over the group," Lawlor said.
"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 a separate instance, the priest learned the former club member was hosting a party, and so he instructed club members to plan a separate one the same night so no one would show up, Lawlor said.
DiStefano told the students to make a list of alcohol they wanted, so he could buy it for them, authorities said.
"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," Lawlor said.
DiStefano was arrested without incident on Thursday and charged pending a first appearance and detention hearing scheduled to take place in Superior Court.
He faces 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, Ruotolo said.
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.
Click here to sign up for Daily Voice's free daily emails and news alerts.