SCRANTON — Priest, pastor of the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, chaplain for high school students and Boy Scout troops, adoptee who presided over his father’s funeral in Wilkes-Barre, Bishop Hoban Graduate class of 1984 — the Rev. Philip Altavilla was all these things.
Now he is one more: The latest Diocese of Scranton priest accused of misconduct with a minor.
Scranton police arrested Altavilla Thursday after a woman approached them with a story as sordid as the night it allegedly happened was spiritual.
As a 13-year-old member of St. Patrick’s Church in Scranton in 1998, she had the honor of serving Midnight Mass Christmas morning, the police affidavit says. It is often the most ornately decorated and richly orchestrated ceremony of a Catholic parish, marking the Christian date for the birth of the faith’s Savior.
According to police, the woman said that after the Mass, Altavilla offered her alcohol in the parish rectory, then gave her a ride home, parking along the way and fondling her feet and legs before she objected.
Police say upon receiving the report they had the woman call Altavilla while they listened in, and he admitted to the alcohol, touching her feet and placing his hand up her leg. According to the affidavit, Altavilla said “he has a foot fetish and feet gratify him and are sexual to him.”
Altavilla was charged with misdemeanor counts of indecent assault, criminal attempt to commit indecent assault and corruption of minors. He was arraigned Thursday before District Judge Laura Turlip in Archbald and released on $75,000 unsecured bail. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday before Turlip.
All this came from a man who had gained the trust of diocesan and church officials to be appointed to numerous prominent roles. His titles throughout the last decade or so:
• Pastor at St. Peter’s Cathedral, the seat of the diocese;
• Chaplain for Boy Scouts of America in the diocese;
• Chaplain at Holy Cross High School in Dunmore;
• Director of Ecumenism and interfaith affairs;
• Episcopal Vicar for the Northeast region, a post given to him by then Philadelphia Archbishop Justin Rigali upon the retirement of Bishop Joseph Martino;
• Moderator of the Curia.
• Vicar General.
According to Times Leader archives, Altavilla presided over his father Donald’s funeral in October, 2002 at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Wilkes-Barre. Originally from Hanover Township, his father had moved to Plains Township.
Diocesan spokesman Dan Gallagher also confirmed Philip Altavilla was an adoptee, a point he used publicly during a Mother’s Day Mass at St. Peter’s Cathedral in May, 2011 that honored adopted children and their families. Altavilla held up a tattered stuffed rabbit from his childhood and thanked all mothers, natural and adopted.
But increasingly, people who gain such high levels of trust are the ones who can hide misconduct, said David Clohessy, director of SNAP — Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests — an organization based in St. Louis that tracks priest abuse and advocates on behalf of victims.
“In more recent years this is exactly the profile of the predator priest,” Clohessy said. “Those who are less powerful get caught earlier. Those typically higher up the ladder with a lot of clout tend to get caught later.”
The fact that Altavilla was apparently a regarded speaker often appearing as guest homilist at services throughout the diocese, including at St. John The Evangelist in Pittston and St. Jude’s in Mountain Top, according to Times Leader archives, adds to the profile, Clohessy said.
“To rob a bank you need a gun and a car,” he offered by way of analogy. “To molest a child you need to be charismatic and popular.”
Stressing it was “pure speculation,” Clohessy also noted Altavilla’s high positions in the diocese could have made it easier to intimidate any potential whistle blowers who may have known or suspected he had done something wrong. Clohessy singled out the “moderator of the curia post.”
In the Catholic Church, “curia” usually refers to the staff of the chancery, where diocesan records are processed and kept, and the moderator of the curia coordinates administrative affairs of that staff.
“As head of the curia he surely had access to personnel files,” Clohessy noted, meaning Altavilla could potentially use that access, along with the trust he had earned with the bishop, to make someone think twice about voicing suspicions. In fact the simple fact that Altavilla had such access and authority may have been enough to keep tongues silent.
Altavilla was moderator of the Curia from September, 2011 through most of October, 2012. No one has accused him of abusing his positions within the diocese.
The diocese apparently wasted no time in responding to the arrest, releasing a statement the same day saying Altavilla had been relieved of duties and suspended from exercising priestly ministry. By Friday the website for St. Peter’s made no mention of Altavilla, noting that The Rev. Brian Clarke was “administrator pro-tem.”
The statement included a quote from Bishop Joseph Bambera saying “I am both angry and demoralized to think that, yet again, a priest has been involved in such inappropriate, immoral and illegal behavior.” Bambera also asked “that anyone who may have information about or may have been abused by this cleric contact the Scranton Police Department Detective Bureau at (570) 348-4139.”
But Clohessy said that call for others to come forward has become a standard part of church reactions when such cases come to light and “is absolutely not enough.” He said Bambera, and other bishops faced with similar revelations, should take bolder steps.
Victims of child molestation rarely speak out to begin with, and when they do it is often decades after the fact, Clohessy noted. He said the woman who came forward in this case actually responded “relatively quickly,” despite waiting a decade and a half to speak up.
That’s because sexual predators, priests or others, may spend years grooming victims and gaining their trust. “First you have to realize what happened was wrong,” Clohessy said. “Then you have to realize it was criminal, then you have to overcome whatever self-blame you feel.”
In this case, Clohessy noted, the victim may have feared punishment for admitting she drank alcohol.
“For the victims, typically the most common coping mechanism is minimization,” Clohessy said. “They tell themselves, ‘oh yeah, something happened, but it was only once, or it wasn’t that bad’.”
Many times it takes years, even decades of failure, alcohol abuse or family problems to force a victim to look back at their past and realize they are still hurting from abuse by a once-trusted predator.
Which means that, when cases are brought to light, bishops should “beat the bushes” for other victims. “Think about how powerful a signal it would be if he went personally each Sunday to every church where this guy worked and said ‘look I know it’s hard for you to do this. I know you care about this church and this diocese. But you have a moral obligation to share what you know and to help us track down families that belonged to this parish and suddenly left, or had deep roots here and disappeared, or had kids in the parish school and yanked them all out’,” Clohessy said.