Many Morristown area residents were saddened to see that Mendham’s St. Joseph Church monument to victims of clergy sexual abuse has been destroyed — again. The monument, which depicted a 400-pound millstone and two children, was created in response to a priest at St. Joseph who confessed to the sexual abuse of over a dozen children during his tenure. One of them later committed suicide. A Mendham man with a history of psychiatric illness pleaded guilty to the first incident in 2011, and awaits sentencing on Feb. 7. In March 2013, it was vandalized again. That perpetrator is still unknown.
Vandalism, by its very nature, often has no logical provocation or malicious cause. That’s why it’s referred to as “criminal mischief” in some New Jersey statutes. When people deface personal or public property, they may be motivated by a desire to intimidate someone or get revenge. In this case, one might have theorized that the vandal’s motive was some personal connection to the defrocked priest, or his conviction that problems within the Catholic Church should not be openly acknowledged through a public moment.
However, quite often there is no motivation at all except psychiatric illness. A mentally ill person like this man may suffer from poor impulse control, delusional thinking and severe emotional or neurological dysfunction. Mental illness is a disability of the brain, which regulates neurotransmitters that control emotions, process sensory input and create thoughts. Since the brain is so critical to personality and behavior, when the brain is impaired, the ability to regulate impulses and make appropriate decisions deteriorates. This is not the fault of the ill person. A criminal sentence will not prevent future crimes, nor help rehabilitate their behavior, because what they require is medical treatment for their illness.
This man’s attorney was able to negotiate his charge down from criminal mischief to disorderly conduct. Instead of prison, he was given probation and continued psychiatric treatment. He was also asked to pay $7,500 in restitution. When criminal damage to government property like a monument exceeds a certain amount, it can sometimes be prosecuted as a felony offense. Damage to state and federal property is usually treated as especially serious. In this case, it is fortunate that this man’s attorney understood his illness, and was able to successfully argue a modified insanity defense.