RI priest arrested on child molestation charges

The Providence Journal/November 5, 2020

By Brian Amaral

A Rhode Island priest was arrested Thursday morning on charges of sexually abusing three boys decades ago.

John Petrocelli, 75, was on the list of credibly accused priests released by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence last year. Petrocelli was removed from ministry in 2002.

The charges stem from Petrocelli’s time as an assistant pastor at Holy Family Parish in Woonsocket between Nov. 6, 1981 and Oct. 3, 1990, Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office said.

A grand jury indictment, handed up Monday and unsealed Thursday, charged Petrocelli with three counts of first-degree child molestation and nine counts of second-degree child molestation.

The indictment alleges Petrocelli abused three boys, all younger than 14 at the time. It is the first criminal case, but potentially not the last, to come out of state authorities’ ongoing review of more than half a century of priest abuse in Rhode Island.

That review is scrutinizing not just the abuse itself, but the diocese’s response to it. And where criminal charges can be brought, they will, even before the review concludes.

Often in investigations looking back at decades-old abuse, the barrier to bringing criminal charges is unavoidable: The perpetrator might be dead.

But other factors make child sexual-abuse prosecutions challenging, Neronha said in an interview. Sometimes the only evidence is the word of a young child. And the biggest question for them becomes: Will the adults believe me?

“Why is it so important? If a grand jury indicts or more importantly a trial jury convicts, those people believed you,” Neronha said in an interview. “I don’t think the importance of that lessens with time. It may become more important with time.”

Neronha said he expects his review of priest abuse in Rhode Island, which is happening along with the state police, to continue into next year.

A team of lawyers is scouring decades of diocesan records, which church leaders turned over under an agreement with his office and state police. He’s expecting to release a report detailing their findings, showing what went wrong and how to prevent it in the future.

But before that happens, they’ve long anticipated finding viable criminal cases. That might come from finding new evidence, or taking a fresh look at materials that have been there all along.

“If you’re a victim of child sexual abuse, whether it’s at the hands of a member of the clergy or anyone else, I don’t think the fact that justice may come late is justice denied,” Neronha said. “I think there is a desire for justice whenever it comes.”

The indictment was unsealed Thursday, after Petrocelli's first court appearance. He pleaded not guilty to all 12 counts and bail was set at $50,000 with the option to post the full amount in property or 10% in cash. He was also given three no-contact orders.

Petrocelli has been the subject of litigation past and present. The diocese agreed in 2008 to settle a lawsuit brought by men who said they were abused as boys by Rhode Island priests, including a man who said Petrocelli, then of the Holy Family Church in Woonsocket, molested him beginning in elementary school.

Another man who said Petrocelli molested him as a boy sued the diocese’s leadership a year ago, after the state extended the deadline to bring child sexual-abuse lawsuits. A state judge, however, threw out that lawsuit and two others last month. The new law extended the deadline to file lawsuits over child sexual abuse from seven years to 35 years after a victim's 18th birthday — and allowed people to use the new deadline even if their claims had already run out so long as they were suing a "perpetrator."

The victims argued that the diocese's role in concealing and abetting child sexual abuse was so egregious that it veered into criminal conduct, meaning it could be held liable as a "perpetrator." Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel disagreed, finding that a perpetrator in these sorts of civil cases was the actual abuser. The plaintiff didn't sue Petrocelli himself in the newest case, just diocesan institutions.

The decision dismissing the suits could be appealed.

Though he was removed from ministry in 2002, that falls short of "defrocking," which would remove someone's priestly status. Defrocking has to follow a canonical process that requires the Pope's final approval; there's no indication that Petrocelli has been defrocked, and the diocese didn't respond to a request for comment about whether he had been. Someone who's removed from ministry no longer has the bishop's permission to do things like hear Confession, say Mass or wear clerical attire. But they still remain a priest. He was granted retirement in 2012 by the diocese, according to the indictment.

Petrocelli used his title — the Rev. John Petrocelli, of Pawtucket — to argue in a letter to the editor sent to The Journal in 2014 that “humans don't have the right to kill innocent life in the womb.”

Reached at his home last year, after the release of the list of credibly accused priests, Petrocelli declined to comment.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence said it removed Petrocelli from ministry in 2002 after receiving credible allegations of abuse, which were reported to law enforcement.

The diocese’s Office of Compliance, which deals with child sexual abuse, also received allegations against Petrocelli recently, the diocese said. They were “promptly reported to law enforcement,” the diocese said.

“The Diocese of Providence takes very seriously all allegations of abuse and works closely with law enforcement agencies in accordance with the Charter for the Protection of Young People and diocesan policy,” the diocese said.

The diocese urged anyone who has been the victim of child sexual abuse by a member of the church or has any credible knowledge about it to contact the Rhode Island State Police Major Crimes Unit (401) 444-1000, the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office (401) 274-4400 or the diocesan Office of Compliance at (401) 941-0760.

A lawyer for multiple men who alleged Petrocelli abused them as children said his clients felt validated, at long last, by Petrocelli’s arrest.

“They were very gratified to see the attorney general’s office was pursuing criminal charges, and they have been understandably anxious to see that in fact after all these years, action was being taken against Petrocelli,” said Timothy Conlon, who represents many victims of priest sexual abuse. “But upon learning this has happened, it’s very gratifying to them, to see there’s follow-through and accountability.”

As difficult as exploring decades-old allegations may be, it’s important for the law to pursue them, as the attorney general is currently doing with his broad investigation into priest sexual abuse, Conlon said.

“The idea that law enforcement is picking up on what otherwise could be considered a cold case and moving forward is very good, because otherwise, people who by nature tend to be recidivist are left freely in the community,” Conlon said.

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