Priest to stand trial

June 9th, 2015 4:18 pm

First Posted: 5/27/2014

SCRANTON — Nearly 16 years after the Rev. Philip Altavilla allegedly had inappropriate contact with her, his accuser took the witness stand.

After hearing the 29-year-old’s account and testimony from a Scranton detective, District Judge John Mercuri ruled Tuesday that Altavilla will face charges — indecent assault and providing alcohol to a minor — in Lackawanna County Court.

The alleged victim took the witness stand in the courthouse for about 20 minutes and gave the following testimony.

On December 25, 1998, “Father Phil” Altavilla invited the then-13-year-old to the rectory to celebrate Christmas following midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Church in Scranton, she testified.

She said she accepted his offer and they spent, along with two other adults, the next 2 to 3 hours drinking “two one gallon bottles of red wine.”

Paul Walker, Altavilla’s attorney, scrutinized the amount the woman said the party of four imbibed, but she persisted and said her share of the wine amounted to six or seven glasses, rendering her intoxicated. Around 3 or 4 a.m., the alleged victim said, Altavilla drove her home, stopping at one point and pulling her legs onto his lap.

Then, she said, he began rubbing her feet.

“He proceeded up my leg to my thigh,” she said, “kind of like in a massaging way.”

At that point, the woman said, she became uncomfortable and told Altavilla to stop.

“I told him he was out of line and I went to get out of the car,” she said. Adding later, “I had a feeling it would have gone further.”

The alleged victim delivered her testimony in a steady and calm tone, but quickly left the courtroom following her questioning.

Scranton police detective Vincent Uher described from the witness stand how police corroborated the woman’s story.

He said the police intercepted and recorded a phone call between Altavilla and the alleged victim in which the priest admitted to drinking with the her, knowing the woman was 13 years old at the time, asking her to put her legs on his lap, having a fetish for feet and pantyhose and deriving sexual gratification from his contact with her.

According to Uher’s testimony, Altavilla said he “did it because he was drinking,” and never intended for his advances to go any further.

The priest also had photographs of the alleged victim’s feet that he kept in his room, the detective said.

Early on in the proceedings, Walker attempted to argue the charges were invalid because, he said, the statute of limitations had passed, but Mercuri was unswayed.

In his final move, Walker argued Altavilla could not be charged with indecent assault because he never touched the alleged victim’s genitals. The judge dismissed the argument.

Wearing a suit and open collar, Altavilla did not testify.

Though relieved of all duties as a priest, Altavilla was once highly regarded in the region.

As The Times Leader previously reported, he graduated from Bishop Hoban in 1984 and served in a number of positions after he was ordained into the priesthood in 2000. They include pastor at St. Peter’s Cathedral (the Mother Church of the Scranton diocese) chaplain for Boy Scouts of America in the diocese, chaplain at Holy Cross High School in Dunmore and director of Ecumenism and interfaith affairs.

He is free on $75,000 bail.