WILKES-BARRE — The Rev. Phillip Altavilla, a graduate of Bishop Hoban High School, now Holy Redeemer, is the fourth diocesan priest to face a judge on sexual misconduct charges in the last decade.
Altavilla’s hearing on three charges related to an alleged incident with a 13-year-old girl in 1998 is set for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday before Lackawanna County District Judge Laura Turlip.
While the number may be disheartening to members of the faith, it may also demonstrate the difference in how the Catholic Church has handled such cases since the national scandals at the turn of the millennium that prompted sweeping changes.
Police charged Altavilla last week with one count each of indecent assault, corruption of minors and criminal attempt of indecent assault, all allegedly occurring Christmas morning with a 13-year-old girl who had served midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Scranton, where Altavilla was pastor at the time.
Altavilla was immediately suspended from priestly duties, including his position as pastor of St. Peter’s Cathedral. According to police, the girl called him while they listened in and Altavilla admitted he plied the girl with alcohol, fondled her feet and moved his hands up her legs.
In the wake of numerous cases of child molestation’s and sexual misconduct, including repeated allegations of cover-ups by moving accused priests to new parishes, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued two new documents in 2002.
They were the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” and “Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons.”
Among other things, the new guidelines barred confidential settlements of such cases unless confidentiality was requested by the victim, required notification to and cooperation with public authorities when allegations of sexual abuse are made and called for immediate suspension of a priest upon allegations pending the outcome of an investigation.
The new guidelines, coupled with a heightened public scrutiny, have produced results, at least numerically.
Prior to the charter, the Diocese of Scranton had only one priest charged and convicted of sexual abuse: The Rev. Robert Caparelli, arrested in 1991 after a 19-year-old man told police he had been molested at the age of 13, in 1985.
Another person came forward with more charges after that. Caparelli spent the last 2-1/2 years of his life in prison.
That sole arrest came despite the fact that, according to a report covering the years 1950 to 2002 completed by the diocese for the USCCB, “allegations were made against 25 Diocesan priests” prior to the charter, and “the allegations were founded in 15 of those cases.”
Since the charter was implemented, three priests have been charged and sentenced in sexual misconduct cases, according to Times Leader archives:
• The Rev. Albert Liberatore, accused of abusing a minor from 1999 to 2002 beginning when the boy was 14. He pleaded guilty in 2005 and was sentenced to 10 years probation. A civil suit was filed and the diocese settled for $3 million in 2007.
• The Rev. Robert Timchak, arrested in October 2009 after the diocese received a tip and police seized a computer with downloaded child pornography. He was sentenced November 2010 to six to 72 months in prison. While the charges were filed in Pike County, Timchak had served locally, including at West Hazleton’s Transfiguration Church before the parish school was closed. Timchak had also written a column for The Times Leader.
• The Rev. Thomas Shoback, Wilkes-Barre, was charged in June 2012 with sexually assaulting an altar boy in Tioga County from 1991 through 1997. The victim was 11 when the assaults started. Shoback, who had taught at Bishop Hoban High school, was convicted in May 2013 and sentenced that August to five to 10 years in prison.
Several other cases have led to priests suspended from duties or to civil suits but not to criminal charges. According to The Times Leader archives, Shoback’s brother, Edward J. Shoback, a former diocesan priest, was suspended in 2004 amid allegations of sexual abuse and was defrocked by the Vatican in 2009.
Monsignor J. Peter Crynes, a well-liked pastor at St. Therese’s Church in Kingston Township, was removed from active duty in May 2006 for allegations of misconduct with high school girls 12 years earlier. The Vatican ordered him removed from all public ministry.
The Rev. Carlos Urrutigoity and the Rev. Eric Ensey of the Society of St. John, a conservative order that set up in Pike County, were accused in 2001 of sexual misconduct with young men. They were suspended and sent for evaluation, resulting in a recommendation they be barred from ministry for life, and the society was suppressed.
Yet the two surfaced in Paraguay, and Urrutigoity was promoted to a high diocesan position recently, prompting Bambera to issue statements distancing the Scranton Diocese from Urrutigoity and restating the opinion that he was unsuitable for ministry.
Altavilla arguably is the highest-placed priest in the diocese to face charges, having served numerous roles including vicar general, moderator of the curia and director of ecumenism and interfaith affairs. According to Times Leader archives, he was a frequent guest homilist at area services.
The Rev. Gerald Gurka, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Larksville, said Altavilla “attended his father’s funeral and he (Altavilla) spoke so eloquently.” He added Altavilla had always been “an incredible speaker” who “made a point of going up to people and being kind.”
“We pray for the victim and for him and for the church,” Gurka said, “for truth and justice for all involved.”
Rabbi Larry Kaplan, who had worked with Altavilla through the Interfaith Council, called his work on the council “amazing” and the allegations “upsetting.”
“My heart goes out to the woman involved and her family and to the Catholic community as well, which has to deal with this,” he said.