ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - Church Militant has reported that, as rector of the Pontifical North American College (NAC), Bp. James Checchio of the diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey maintained an elite group of seminarian friends, including openly gay Michael Casabon and his friend Fr. Gregory Rannazzisi. Another of Checchio's elite seminarian friends pleaded guilty in 2018 to raping a young woman during Mass and was subsequently defrocked.
In 2018, Crux reported on Jacob Bertrand, a now-laicized priest who had served in the diocese of San Diego, California, who had "raped in Satanic cult-like fashion" a 24-year-old woman "as he celebrated a private Mass for the two of them."
In a criminal hearing on Jan. 22, 2018, Bertrand plead guilty to rape to avoid jail time. Bertrand was laicized soon after.
Church Militant spoke with priests and former seminarians who attended NAC when Checchio was rector, as well as laypersons acquainted with this story.
"At the North American College, it was evident that the then-rector, Msgr. James Checchio, affiliated himself with an elite group of seminarians, who were treated with great benignity by the faculty," said one priest. "These enjoyed special privileges and treatment, and even drank together."
"Jacob Bertrand was part of the same elite group of seminarians that Msgr. Checchio regularly associated himself with," he added.
A faculty member from the NAC customarily attends the ordination of seminarians to the priesthood in his own diocese.
One priest said that the rector would most likely be able to attend the ordinations of his choice on behalf of the NAC, which is why a former seminarian raised an eyebrow when he learned Checchio was the faculty member scheduled to attend Bertrand's ordination.
"I found it bizarre that Checchio, the rector, made it a point to attend Bertrand's priestly ordination all the way in Southern California," he told Church Militant.
"Considering Checchio was from the Northeast, it didn't make much sense to me why he favored Bertrand in this way," he added. "Then again, Bertrand was in the elite group of 'shining stars.' It seems that out of these elite circles come some of the most narcissistic and sociopathic predators."
One Catholic layperson recounted a disturbing story about then-Fr. Bertrand, an encounter that played a part in a young man's departure from the Catholic Church:
In February of 2011, my friend asked to go to confession with Fr. Jacob Bertrand at St. Rose of Lima in Chula Vista. At the time, my friend was in high school and was secretly wrestling with his sexual orientation.
Father Jacob took him to the sacristy and ordered him to get down on his knees while this sick priest stood over him. This teenage boy was forced to confess his sins directly in front of Fr. Jacob Bertrand's crotch. Then Fr. Jacob put his hands over my kneeling friend's head in order to absolve him; my friend recalls that this experience of absolution was very suggestive of oral sex.
It was a power trip [that] left my friend ashamed and humiliated. He said he couldn't look Fr. Jacob in the eye after that. He didn't start to speak about this until other allegations against Fr. Jacob finally began to surface.
Sadly my friend has left the Catholic Church although I don't blame him for the trust that has been lost. In addition to this experience, he was preyed upon by other predatory priests.
A former seminarian told Church Militant that Bertrand visited the NAC in his first year as a priest and boasted about allegations of sexual misconduct.
"In Bertrand's first year as a priest, he came back to Rome to visit the NAC. While visiting us at the NAC, he bragged about being accused of sexual misconduct. He explicitly shared the allegations," he said.
The former seminarian expounded on one of the disturbing stories Bertrand recounted.
"Allegedly a young woman was asked to bend over so that he could check her vagina to see if her menstrual period had bled through her pants," said the former seminarian. "I found it extremely disturbing that he had been accused of sexual misconduct within his first year of priesthood."
"Surely enough, almost a decade later, Bertrand ended up facing felony charges and pleading guilty to sexually assaulting a different woman," he continued.
One of the documents to which the NAC adheres in its formation program is the "Program of Priestly Formation" (PPF) of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The PPF (41) states: "Without denying the importance of evaluating minimal thresholds in all areas of an applicant's development, high standards and strict vigilance are especially necessary in evaluating human thresholds pertaining to sexuality."
"For the seminary applicant, thresholds pertaining to sexuality serve as the foundation for living a lifelong commitment to healthy, chaste celibacy," it adds.
According to canon law (specifically, canon III.8.7(b)(2)), the rector of a major seminary must endorse a seminarian deacon for priestly ordination.
As rector of the NAC, Checchio was the principal overseer of Bertrand's priestly formation and one of the main authorities to recommend Bertrand ― another "elite seminarian friend" ― for priestly ordination, an event for which Checchio flew to San Diego to attend.
The guideline (41) from the PPF ends: "As we have recently seen so dramatically in the Church, when such foundations are lacking in priests, the consequent suffering and scandals are devastating."