After damning report, priest sentenced for sex abuse

The Philadelphia Inquirer/March 3, 2016

By Caitlin McCabe

Johnstown, Pennsylvania - One day after a grand jury report accused the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese of hiding or ignoring decades of clergy sex abuse, a judge sentenced one of those priests Wednesday to more than 16 years in prison for sexually assaulting two boys during missionary trips to Honduras.

U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson also ordered the Rev. Joseph Maurizio, 70, to pay a $50,000 fine and $10,000 in restitution to each child.

Gibson did not mention the separate investigation or report by state prosecutors, but criticized Maurizio for preying upon vulnerable children and hiding behind his collar.

"The defendant abused a position of public trust," Gibson said.

The sentencing came a day after Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane released a 147-page grand jury report that described decades of pervasive and unchecked abuse by dozens of priests in the diocese, and said its bishops were all too willing to hide what they learned.

The report shook the diocese, which covers eight counties.

"This is a painful and difficult time in our diocesan church," Bishop Mark L. Bartchak said in a statement. "I deeply regret any harm that has come to children, and I urge the faithful to join me in praying for all victims of abuse."

The report said that Maurizio, a priest since 1987, had been the subject of a complaint in 2009, but that a diocesan official later concluded the allegation of his misconduct was "impossible." It also said agents found sexually explicit material involving children on his computers during a 2014 raid.

The federal investigation focused on his travels. According to prosecutors, Maurizio used a self-run charity, Honduras Interfaith Ministries, to travel for several years on mission trips to a Honduran facility for orphaned and abused children. There, jurors found, Maurizio performed sex acts and fondled two children.

The diocese suspended Maurizio after federal prosecutors charged him in September 2014. He was convicted last fall.

The priest maintained his innocence throughout the case, and on Wednesday greeted the judge's sentence with silence.

But 11 supporters spoke on his behalf, telling Gibson that Maurizio had been unfairly prosecuted and wrongly cited as an example of predatory clergy sex abuse.

Prosecutors dismissed that notion outright.

"We are not here because anyone is jealous. . . . We are not here because Honduran children came after him. That's ludicrous," Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Larson said. "He is not a political prisoner. We are here because he sexually abused two boys."

Maurizio's attorney, Steven Passarello of Altoona, decried what he called Kane's "impeccable timing" in releasing the report just one day before Maurizio's sentencing.

In an interview after the hearing, he said Maurizio had faced "an uphill battle" from the start of the case, calling the climate surrounding Catholic priests one that begins with "a presumption of guilt."

Throughout the hearing, Maurizio smiled and wiped away tears as family, friends, and parishioners recounted his years of service to the Johnstown community and the impoverished Latin American communities he visited. After his sisters testified, he mouthed, "I love you," to them.

"I know men who are child molesters," said Daniel Thomas, who described himself as a friend of 30 years, "and Joe doesn't fit the profile."

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