PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic — A former Roman Catholic priest who was defrocked and convicted of molesting two boys in New Jersey has found a new vocation in a new location — teaching children English at a private school in this resort town.
The former priest, Hadmels DeFrias, 47, told the NBC News reporter who tracked him down that he is no longer a threat to minors and also claimed to be a bishop in the “progressive Celtic church.”
“I don’t see the children with those eyes anymore,” DeFrias said in an extensive interview outside the Colegio del Caribe school in Punta Cana, where he watched over dozens of young boys and girls while shielding himself from the sun with an umbrella.
“For me they are children and they need to be treated like children because that is what they are,” he said. “I don’t feel the attraction. I am not telling you that maybe someday it won’t be there, because I can’t predict the future.”
As a priest, DeFrias, who is originally from the Dominican Republic, was assigned to the St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey, when he was accused of fondling two brothers, both under 14, in 2001 and 2002 while the brothers were working in the church rectory, according to court records and published reports.
Charged with criminal sexual contact, DeFrias pleaded guilty in August 2004 and was sentenced to three years of probation, court records show. As part of his sentencing agreement, he was barred indefinitely from any future contact with children under 18 in the state of New Jersey.
After being contacted by NBC News, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office in New Jersey issued a statement disapproving of DeFrias’ position working with children.
“It is deeply concerning to hear that a defendant prosecuted, convicted and sentenced here for criminal sexual contact with children has resurfaced overseas, apparently with supervisory capacity over children,” the office said. “We would urge anyone in any jurisdiction to be vigilant and immediately report allegations of such conduct to local authorities.”
NBC News has reached out to both the Dominican Republic educational officials and the school where DeFrias is employed to find out if they were aware of his criminal past. So far, neither has responded.
In the interview, DeFrias expressed regret for assaulting the brothers but insisted that his urges are under control and that he has been in therapy for a decade. He said he told school officials about his criminal past before they hired him, even though he claims he didn’t need to “inform them.”
“What they have to know is if I committed a crime in the country, which I haven’t,” DeFrias said, referring to the Dominican Republic. “So when I presented my criminal background here, it’s clean. So they don’t even have to be aware of what happened in the States.”
The ex-priest said that he has a teaching assistant in the classroom with him so he’s never alone with his young charges, and that the classroom has no doors.
Asked if he regrets what he did, DeFrias said, “I never meant for it to happen.”
“It is something that is always present and will always be present in my life,” he said. “If I let it go then it’s like forgetting the Holocaust. Then we are letting ourselves open for the possibility that it may happen again.”
Should parents be concerned that he is teaching their kids?
“Perhaps they might be,” DeFrias said. “That is normal behavior.”
DeFrias’ name resurfaced last month when Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, released a list of more than 60 priests dating to 1940 who had been “credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors.” DeFrias was one of just a handful of Roman Catholic priests who had been criminally prosecuted for sexually abusing children.
“That is definitely the same person,” said John Esmerado, an assistant prosecutor in the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, who led the case against DeFrias in 2003. Esmerado was shown a photo of DeFrias dressed in a habit that appears on the website of his new church, the Iglesia Anglicana de Rito Celta Dominicana del Caribe.
“The same eyes, the same face,” Esmerado said. “It’s him, 16 years later.”
Maria Margiotta, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Newark, said the diocese lost track of DeFrias years ago.
“Fr. Hadmels DeFrias was permanently removed from ministry and all ties with the Archdiocese of Newark were permanently severed when he was laicized by the Vatican at our request,” Margiotta said in an email. “We’ve had no contact or involvement with any of his actions after he was laicized.”
And by laicized, Margiotta means DeFrias “is barred from all priestly ministry.”
DeFrias told NBC News he was not aware that the archdiocese had posted his name.
“I think it’s a good thing because the church needs to be honest,” he said. “We cannot pretend it never happened. It happened. “
DeFrias said he has been diagnosed with ephebophilia, which according to a 2004 report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and known as the John Jay Report, means a sexual attraction to adolescents. DeFrias said he succumbed to temptation due to a “combination of depression and not having proper sexual education.”
“Because that’s not what happens in the church,” he said. “I mean, you are put in a role that you are in charge of so many things and you have to abstain from sexual stuff, but they don’t teach you how to manage it. Now they are beginning to work with it.”
DeFrias was born in the Dominican Republic. He received a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Seton Hall University in 1995, according to Laurie Pine, spokeswoman for the school in South Orange, New Jersey.
Four years later, in 1999, DeFrias was ordained a Roman Catholic priest, according to church officials.
After his ouster from the priesthood, DeFrias was the owner of B&D Autobody, in West New York, New Jersey, for seven years, according to his LinkedIn page.
Then from March 2011 to March 2012, DeFrias worked as a telemarketer — something he also told an NBC News reporter.
But DeFrias apparently never left the religion business.
In an online profile on the business-networking site Zintro that went up in February 2013, DeFrias referred to himself as a “Reverend” as well as a “Wedding Officiant, Management, Spiritual Counseling, Customer Service.”
“An ordained minister holding theological degrees from Seton Hall University that includes Scripture and Pastoral Counseling,” the profile says. “Have work (sic) in mental health and as online marketing executive. Now I am affiliated with a non-denominational church in a wedding ministry.”
A Zintro spokesman said that DeFrias has not visited the page since it went up and would be removed due to his criminal history.
From June 2012 to March 2013, DeFrias lived in Largo, Florida, according to available records.
On his LinkedIn page, DeFrias described himself as a minister with “American Marrige (sic) Ministries” beginning in January 2013.
“Service the community by performing marriages, funerals and other religious services. All inclusive ministering to all including the LGBT community,” it reads.
Sometime after that, DeFrias was back home in the Dominican Republic. And in 2017, he started a local chapter of an interfaith group called The Order of Eremitic Servants, according to Archabbot Bjorn, who manages the OES chapter in Idaho.
The OES, according to its website, is “an interfaith monastic community of men and women whose primary purpose is to alleviate the suffering caused by religious intolerance and to promote peace and understanding in the local and global community through interfaith dialogue and charitable acts.” It has chapters in North Carolina and Canada as well.
On the group’s Facebook page, DeFrias goes by Father Rafael and is listed as the “Prior for the Dominican Republic.”
Bjorn, who goes by Father Archabbot, was surprised to hear of DeFrias’ past.
“I was not aware he was a convicted child molester,” he said, when informed of DeFrias’ past by NBC News. Asked whether this could affect DeFrias’ standing in the order, Bjorn declined to comment.
Starting in February 2018, according to his LinkedIn page, DeFrias began teaching English in Punta Cana, a sun-splashed tourist mecca of about 50,000 that is famous for its beaches.
DeFrias also described himself as “a priest with the Progressive Celtic Church, an independent catholic jurisdiction within the Anglican tradition of churches.”
“I am currently working on setting up a Celtic Mission in the Dominican Republic. As Celtics we view things from a different perspective than mainline churches,” he wrote on his LinkedIn page. “We follow Pelagian and not Augustinian thought where there is not original sin, but original blessing. God wants all to be saved, thus every religion can lead to salvation.“
DeFrias, in his interview with NBC News, said his new church is an offshoot of the Anglican Church.
The Anglicans disagree.
“They are not part of the Anglican Church in North America, nor are they affiliated with the Global Anglican Future Conference,” said the Rev. Canon Andrew Gross, a spokesman for the Anglican Church in North America.
On its website, DeFrias’ church says it is associated with another Celtic Anglican church in Syracuse, New York. But NBC News could not locate any such church in Syracuse.
“I’ve never heard of the Celtic Anglican church,” said Meredith Kadet Sanderson, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York.
NBC News also reached out by email to the Progressive Celtic Church website, which lists a Most Reverend Metropolitan Archbishop Alban Mason Kirk as its Syracuse representative. There was no response.
Using the address on DeFrias’ church website, an NBC News reporter also tried and failed to locate a Sunday service in the Dominican Republic. A local guide said there are a number of religious groups in the area that don’t have a sanctuary and that hold services in public parks and other facilities.
On the church’s website, there are photos of children and their families participating in services as well as a photo of DeFrias dressed in a brown habit.
DeFrias said he misses being a Roman Catholic priest.
“I miss it because I don’t even celebrate the Eucharist anymore,” he said. “I mean, I am a bishop in the (Celtic) church. I’m elected bishop but it’s just a role to direct other priests.”
“I don’t like speaking in terms of what I lost because I think the children lost more,” he added. “But I lost most of my life. When you are trained as a priest you were trained as a priest and nothing else.”
DeFrias said he wound up teaching kids because he needed a job and “probably by next year I will not be here.”
Asked about his plans, DeFrias said, “it’s going to be in real estate.”
“We are opening a company related to real estate so it’s not going to be kids,” he said. “I do want to work in education somehow. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be with children. I want to work with training teachers.”
Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, whose efforts to expose pedophile priests were dramatized in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight,” said the Catholic Church has a history of washing its hands of problem clergymen and he’s not surprised the Newark Archdiocese was not keeping tabs on DeFrias.
“Just because a priest is publicly named as a pedophile doesn’t mean they keep a close eye on them afterward,” Garabedian said. “If the Catholic Church defrocks a priest, they don’t keep track of that priest, and that is a calculated move. They don’t want to know him.”
Gruber reported from the Dominican Republic, Acevedo and Siemaszko from New York.