Their view: Memories of childhood priest now in serious doubt

Michael Reich -

Girard F. Angelo.

It was the second name on a list of “Credibly Accused Individuals” released by the Diocese of Scranton on Tuesday as the public finally got to see the findings of a statewide grand jury investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Girard F. Angelo was Father Angelo to me, and I was shocked to see his name on the list.

Angelo, who died in 2009, was the one and only priest at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Harleigh — just outside Hazleton — from the early 1970s until he retired in 2003.

Sacred Heart (also known as St. Raphael’s) was my home parish as a child, and I have many memories of Angelo from the Sundays of my youth.

I also spent at least a little time alone with the man during my brief stint as an altar boy while I was a pre-teen — (or when I got called out of Sunday school to knock icicles off a low-hanging roof one particular day.)

First, let me be clear.

I certainly am not a victim in any way.

Second, I never saw anything to indicate Angelo was a bad actor. Not in the way he behaved toward me or anyone else.

And I never heard any rumors or gossip along those lines from any other young people at the church, some of whom I knew well from school or grew up with in the same neighborhood.

What I do remember clearly about Angelo was that I thought he was a little mean.

That’s right, mean! However, my attitude about him did change over the years. (More on that later.)

During Sunday sermons, he was sometimes known for rants on certain topics. And those really got your attention, as his booming voice — turning a little angry — easily carried over the pews and kept bleary-eyed youngsters like me from nodding off.

One famous Angelo refrain was about how only certain attire was appropriate to wear into a church, such as no shorts or any kind of clothes you might wear while lounging at home.

It seemed to be a thinly veiled rebuke at parishioners he might have seen recently wearing something a little too casual during Mass.

He also railed loudly against what he referred to as “abortionists.”

Young people attending catechism, or Sunday school, was another thing I recall him being a stickler about.

No doubt, the guy was strict in a variety of other ways as well.

Bottom line: I saw him as a hard-nosed disciplinarian. Sort of a tough guy who wasn’t afraid to tell you about eternal damnation if you messed up in life.

But as a teen, I mostly tuned out his homilies or life lessons or anything else that came out of his mouth.

However, he certainly had everyone’s respect, even if not everyone loved the guy because of his “rough-around-the-edges” personality, as one longtime parishioner described it.

As an adult, though, I looked back on him as a good priest who stood for the right things and was trying to instill some discipline in children.

For instance, when I have occasionally visited other churches (Catholic or other denominations) and have seen kids walking in wearing their Little League uniforms on a Saturday afternoon right after a game or heard people talking loudly before Mass, I would think to myself: “Father Angelo wouldn’t have allowed this.”

And I was actually glad I had a priest that had standards and expected everybody to adhere to them.

The allegation

Now, fast-forward to the present day and the grand jury report.

Again, my initial reaction was shock and disappointment. I also was upset.

“Who in the heck can you trust?” I thought to myself.

I almost didn’t want to read the specific allegations against Angelo because I was afraid of what I might learn.

But finally I turned to page 803 of the grand jury report and found there was only a single accusation documented against Angelo from the early 1960s while he was an assistant pastor at Mater Dolorosa in Williamsport.

In Angelo’s obituary, it notes he established a teenage night club to keep teens off the streets while he served there.

Almost 40 years later, in September 2002, a man wrote former Bishop James Timlin, alleging he had been sexually abused by Angelo when he was just 14, the grand jury report says.

The man “noted that he did not wish to sue, nor make a spectacle of himself or those involved,” it states.

Timlin contacted the man and told him the Lycoming County District Attorney’s office would be contacted even though the statute of limitations had expired.

Timlin also interviewed Angelo, who denied the allegation, the report says.

The summary of the case concludes like this: “Timlin advised the male that any compensation that he felt was due to him would be the responsibility of Angelo. The Bishop then suggested that the male contact Angelo about the allegations and provided him with Angelo’s contact information. The male did not contact Angelo.”

Frankly, I don’t know what to believe in light of all this.

On one hand, the diocese is clear it considers this a credible accusation. (And it lists Angelo’s canonical status as “permanently removed from ministry.”)

On the other, it is only a single accusation from decades ago that Angelo denied. And my own experience with the man makes me believe this couldn’t be true.

Angelo, of course, is no longer around to defend himself.

So those who knew him and prayed with him are left to sort through it all.

What seemed like such a black-and-white thing when you were a kid (i.e., priests are worthy of respect and completely above reproach) now seems like such a gray area.

Did he or didn’t he?

Will anyone ever know 100 percent for sure?

But the damage of doubt now attached to those on the list is indelible.

Doubt that infiltrates your memories of a person.

And doubt about who to trust going forward in life.

It’s a sad time to be a Catholic.

Let’s just hope the release of this information leads us all — no matter your denomination — to a better place.

Michael Reich Reich

Michael Reich is the Times Leader’s night editor. You can reach him at [email protected]

Michael Reich is the Times Leader’s night editor. You can reach him at [email protected]