Liberatore trod a well-traveled path to abuse

Times Leader, Pennsylvania/November 18, 2007

Scranton - For more than a decade, the Rev. Albert Liberatore was viewed as a rising star within the Diocese of Scranton.

From the day in 1989 when he was ordained by then Bishop James Timlin, Liberatore was known as a charismatic, compassionate priest who had a gift for motivating people - talents that earned him several prestigious appointments within the diocese.

But there was a dark side to Liberatore as well - one that he revealed to three impressionable young men he mentored in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Those men would learn that the respected clergyman - who on Sundays preached chastity and abstinence from alcohol - was himself an excessive drinker who engaged in sexual activity with other men, according to their sworn testimony in court records.

Liberatore's clandestine life remained secret until 2004, when one of the men reluctantly came forward to reveal the priest had sexually abused him for several years - when the boy was 14 to 17 years old.

The revelation led to criminal charges against Liberatore and a federal lawsuit against the priest and the diocese that was recently settled for $3 million.

The settlement, reached after two days of testimony, ended the trial before the now 23-year-old victim took the stand, leaving one key question unanswered:

How was Liberatore able to continue his deviant behavior for so long? Textbook example

The answer lies within the pathological games Liberatore and other sexual predators play with their victims' minds, said an area psychiatrist and the head of a national support group for victims of clergy abuse.

"Most people don't have an appreciation for how cunning, determined, relentless and shrewd these predators are," said David Clohessy, president of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests.

Clohessy, who has studied clergy sexual abuse cases nationwide, said the Liberatore case was a "textbook" example of how predators snare their victims.

Testimony from the civil trial and excerpts from pre-trial depositions of several witnesses in the case revealed Liberatore had honed his skills on two other young men - ages 22 and 19 - in the years before he met the 14-year-old altar boy who ultimately exposed him.

Those men, Keir Bancroft, now 33, and Stephen Mickulik, now 30, were among the witnesses who agreed to testify for the plaintiff in his case against the diocese.

Both men were former students of Liberatore who allege the priest touched them in sexually inappropriate ways. Liberatore was never charged because they were both adults when the incidents occurred. Gaining confidence

Their stories revealed the strikingly similar pattern Liberatore followed in cultivating his victims:

All were young men from devoutly religious families, who, due to some family trauma, were in the midst of emotional turmoil.

He befriended them by paying extensive attention to them, buying them gifts and taking them on trips, all in an effort to make them feel "special."

It was all part of "grooming," a psychological maneuver designed to gain a victim's trust so they will let down their defenses, enabling the predator to inflict their will, said Dr. Richard Fischbein, a local psychiatrist knowledgeable in sexual abuse cases.

"They isolate the person, make them feel very special, give them gifts, tell them they're different from other people. They find their weakness or area of need and prey upon it," Fischbein said.

In pre-trial depositions, the plaintiff in the civil trial recounted how Liberatore gradually built up his trust, only to betray it in the most devastating way. The Times Leader is withholding his identity, at his request, because he was a victim of childhood sexual assault.

In 1999, the victim, then 14, and his mother had turned to Liberatore, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Duryea, for emotional support after the boy's father developed a serious neurological disorder.

"He had expressed to (my mother) that he wanted to play the role as a father figure in my life, and who better to trust than a priest?" the victim testified at a pre-trial deposition taken in 2006.

Liberatore showered him with attention, buying him expensive gifts and frequently taking him out for nice dinners and overnight stays to New York and on other trips.

Eventually Liberatore convinced his mother to allow him to stay overnight in the rectory. There Liberatore showed him gay porn movies and plied him with so much alcohol that he frequently "blacked out," he said.

He'd awake in Liberatore's bed to discover the priest was fondling him, he said. Other times, Liberatore would masturbate while lying next to him. The same thing would happen on trips they took together.

He sensed what Liberatore was doing was wrong, he said in his deposition, but whenever he expressed discomfort with the priest's behavior, Liberatore "would turn it around and rather aggressively blame me."

"It was a problem with me that I was uncomfortable with this, that the situation and his actions weren't the problem, that it was me," he said. "I didn't think there was anything wrong with it. He had me that confused." Shamed to silence

That "shaming technique" is a common ploy used by sexual predators, Clohessy and Fischbein said.

"They do everything they can to blur the line, to develop a sense of embarrassment and self -blame within the child," Clohessy said. "Gee, you liked it too.'"

It wasn't until the spring of 2002, when Liberatore attempted to perform oral sex on the boy during an overnight trip to New York, that he realized he was being abused, he said in his deposition.

Neither he nor his mother reported the abuse to police, however. He was influenced, in part, he said, by Brother Antonio Antonucci, an employee of the Sacred Heart parish who strongly dissuaded him from telling anyone.

"Brother Antonio's instruction was to forgive, to keep the issue private and to not let other people know because it would ruin my life and others," he said. "I was convinced - that I was doing the very Christian, you know, most appropriate thing that I could with the situation, which was not telling people."

He was not the first person to be convinced to remain silent. Evidence presented at the civil trial showed Liberatore employed that technique with Bancroft and Mickulik as well.

Bancroft testified he met Liberatore at the University of Scranton in 1995, when Bancroft was a student and Liberatore a professor. Liberatore began sending Bancroft glowing letters, telling him he had been identified as a candidate for the priesthood, and that "God is doing something special in you."

Soon afterward, Liberatore began buying him gifts, taking him out to dinner frequently and inviting him on overnight trips. He was flattered by the attention.

"Al was a very dynamic professor and I felt honored," Bancroft said. "He made me feel special."

It was during several of those trips when Bancroft awoke to discover Liberatore holding his genitals, he testified.

Mickulik made similar claims in an affidavit for the civil case that detailed an unwanted sexual advance Liberatore made to him during an overnight trip to New York. 'A long road'

The case settled before he could testify. In a phone interview, Mickulik said Liberatore knew just the right thing to say to gain his trust, and later, his silence.

He was 19 and studying for the priesthood when he met Liberatore at the St. Pius Seminary in Dalton, he said. At the time he was going through some family issues, and Liberatore was there to support him.

"Al was very personable and had a way of being someone who was easy to talk to," Mickulik said. "I felt comfortable around him to share intimate details of my life. He had a way of responding that it was just what I needed to hear at the time . . . He was able to capitalize on that and take advantage."

Both men said Liberatore manipulated them into not reporting the incidents, telling them it would ruin his career and threatening to kill himself.

"I was a little na?ve at the time and I bought the line," Mickulik said. "It was just so unbelievable that it happened, you try to rationalize why it happened. You try to put it in context and make sense of it. Somehow, it's easier to believe 'It was only me. He said it's not going to happen again.' I just wanted it to be over."

Those feelings were shared by the plaintiff in the civil case. It was not until 2004, when he was a student at the University of Scranton and a classmate told him that he suspected Liberatore had "hit" on him following a night of drinking, that he began questioning whether he was right to remain silent, he said.

In 2004, he met with law enforcement from Luzerne County and New York, who charged Liberatore with numerous sexual assault offenses. Liberatore later pleaded guilty to both cases and was sentenced to a total of 10 years probation.

The civil case behind him, the victim is now looking to move on and rebuild his life.

In the years since the case broke, Bancroft and Mickulik have moved on to create happy, successful lives.

Bancroft is an attorney in Virginia, working for one of the nation's largest law firms. He's been married for eight years and he and his wife are expecting their first child.

Mickulik, a married father of two, is employed as a counselor at a Catholic high school in Reading. He said he's hopeful the now 23-year-old man can find the peace that he has.

"It's a long road, but it's of those things you have to come to grips with and realize, there are elements you will never fully understand," he said.

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