MORRISTOWN, N.J. (RNS) For four years, Jose Feliciano told a jury on Monday (Nov. 28), his rage grew.
The former church janitor said his employer, the Rev. Edward Hinds, had been extorting him, forcing him into unwanted sexual contact under the threat of exposing Feliciano’s criminal past.
The janitor grudgingly allowed the priest to continue touching him, he said, because to do otherwise would have meant the end of his job at St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Chatham, N.J.
And then, on Oct. 22, 2009, five months before Feliciano’s expected retirement, Hinds called him into the rectory and fired him, he said.
“All this time he’s been using me, and now he’s saying I have to go,” Feliciano testified. “I told him, ‘You promised me.’ We got into a very heated argument and I pleaded with him not to do that to me.” Hinds, he said, began belittling him, saying he was “like a child, crying and begging.”
That’s when Feliciano noticed the small steak knife on a table in the kitchen, he said. Grabbing the weapon, he said, he “just went crazy,” stabbing the 61-year-old priest over and over.
A medical examiner would later determine Hinds suffered 44 stab wounds.
Monday’s dramatic testimony came as Feliciano seeks to convince jurors the killing was an explosive crime of passion spurred by years of blackmail and abuse, not an act of premeditated murder.
Prosecutors contend the account is fiction, arguing that Hinds fired Feliciano after learning his employee had been wanted on criminal charges in Pennsylvania since 1988. The allegations included indecent assault on a 7-year- old girl and corrupting the morals of a minor.
The Diocese of Paterson was conducting an audit at the time to ensure all church employees who had contact with children had undergone criminal background checks. Feliciano’s fingerprint card had not been returned to the state police, as required, prompting Hinds to conduct his own investigation, according to church officials.
Feliciano, 66, mostly calm and unemotional, testified in his own defense the entire day, answering questions from Balin Baidwan, one of two public defenders assigned to his case. The testimony was, at times, unsparingly graphic.
Feliciano said Hinds grabbed his genitals, masturbated him and performed oral sex on him over the years, mostly in the rectory at St. Patrick.
It began in late 2003, he said, when Feliciano was fingerprinted in keeping with diocese policy. Feliciano said he told the priest that returning the fingerprint card to the state police would reveal his “problems” in Pennsylvania. Hinds agreed not to send it in, Feliciano said.
Then in March 2004, Hinds wanted to know more about the charges, Feliciano said, so he told the pastor about the charges during confession.
Hinds, he said, was “not too happy” and asked him to move out of the house on the grounds of the church where Feliciano was staying with his wife and two children. Feliciano ultimately moved to Easton, Pa.
Then one day later in 2004, Hinds called him into the rectory and “asked how I was doing in Easton,” Feliciano testified. Hinds put his hand on Feliciano’s lap and “he went and grabbed my privacy,” Feliciano testified.
“I pushed him to the side and said, ‘Father, what are you doing?’” Feliciano said.
Hinds’ response was, “It was not for me to worry about,” Feliciano said. “He had my fingerprints.”
Feliciano said Hinds “grabbed” him more aggressively for the first time in October 2005. “He said he had urges for a long time and this is the first time he had done this,” Feliciano said.
Feliciano said he endured the contact because he believed Hinds would allow him to finish out his time at the church before retirement. Hinds “made a promise to me,” Feliciano said.
(Ben Horowitz writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. Staff writer Mark Mueller contributed to this report.)