Ex-priest charged with child sex abuse in landmark case

Change in sex-abuse law allows prosecution of case 40 years after alleged incidents

Erie Times-News/March 18, 2008

Meadville - An ex-priest in the Catholic Diocese of Erie has been charged with fondling a boy nearly 40 years ago in what is believed to be the first criminal case of its kind in the state.

The boy was between 10 and 12 years old at the time. State police were able to file charges against the former cleric, Thomas E. Smith, because of a 2006 Pennsylvania law that expanded the statute of limitations in the prosecution of sexual-abuse cases involving children.

The previous law limited the prosecution of sex crimes to the date when the victim turned 30. The new law, passed partly in response to the Roman Catholic priest child sex-abuse scandal, extends the prosecution of sex crimes to the date when the victim turns 50.

The case against Smith is thought to be the first of its kind in Pennsylvania since the 2006 law went into effect in early 2007, said David Clohessy, of St. Louis, co-founder of the nationwide Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or S.N.A.P.

He said the change in Pennsylvania law brings the state more in line with Connecticut, Maryland and other states that have extended their respective statutes of limitation for prosecuting child sex crimes.

"Unfortunately, many victims assume they have no legal options because years have passed," Clohessy said Monday. "They are not aware that police, prosecutors, judges and lawmakers are, ever so slightly, making it less difficult for victims to come forward and get justice."

Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz also said he knows of no other similar cases statewide. He said he had investigators look into the case against Smith at the prompting of the accuser.

"We received a call from the alleged victim in the case several weeks ago," Schultz said.

He said state police also talked to Smith, 67, who now lives in Oil City. Schultz declined to comment on what, if anything, Smith said to investigators, and the arrest records provide no details.

What's next?

State police at Meadville charged Thomas E. Smith, a former Roman Catholic priest, by summons, meaning he will receive notice of the charges through the mail, said Saegertown District Judge Lincoln Zilhaver, whose office is handling the case.

Zilhaver said Smith has not yet been arraigned. Zilhaver on Monday scheduled Smith's preliminary hearing for April 8.

Smith is accused of four counts of corrupting the morals of children, a misdemeanor.

State police at Meadville charged Smith on Wednesday, two days before his accuser turned 50 years old, according to the criminal complaint filed at the office of Saegertown District Judge Lincoln Zilhaver.

Police accused Smith of four counts of corrupting the morals of children, a misdemeanor.

Smith, of the 700 block of Innis Street, Oil City, is accused of fondling the boy at a residence on Paden Road, in East Mead Township, between Oct. 1, 1968, and Oct. 1, 1970. Smith, who was then in his early 20s, was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Erie in 1967.

His accuser, Clair Prenatt, now lives in Virginia. He detailed his allegations against Smith in previous interviews with the Erie Times-News as part of the newspaper's coverage of the priest scandal, which originated in the Archdiocese of Boston and exploded nationwide in 2002.

Prenatt said Smith molested him repeatedly, when Prenatt was 10 years old and living in Frenchtown, a village southeast of Meadville. Smith was Prenatt's stepbrother.

"Whenever I see a priest, I feel uncomfortable, " Prenatt said in a 2003 interview. "I can't trust a priest.

"I can't step in a church and not get an ill feeling, from the smell of the incense, or from the smell of the church itself."

Clair Prenatt gave permission to the Erie Times-News to use his name. The Erie Times-News typically does not publish the names of sexual-abuse victims without their permission.

Smith removed as a priest

Prenatt's sister, Judith Prenatt, is a Meadville resident and one of the Catholic Diocese of Erie's most vocal critics regarding the clergy sex scandal. She runs the northwestern Pennsylvania chapter of S.N.A.P.

Judith Prenatt said Monday that her brother, for now, is declining comment to avoid complicating the criminal case. She said she still has concerns about the state tightening what she believes are loopholes in the revised law for child-sex crimes, but she said she is optimistic her brother's case might lead to more awareness.

"I'm hoping, of course, that other victims will come forth, and I'm hoping the new law will show them the justice system is working," Judith Prenatt said. "I'm very proud of my brother to continue to pursue validation."

Smith could not be reached for comment. A telephone message left on his answering machine was not immediately returned. The Erie Times-News also left a note at his apartment seeking comment.

Smith, a Meadville native, served in parishes in Erie and other locales throughout the Catholic Diocese of Erie during he career as an active priest. He was removed as a priest in 2006, when the Vatican secularized him through a process known as laicization, Monsignor Thomas McSweeney, spokesman for the 13-county Catholic Diocese of Erie, said Monday.

McSweeney said he had contacted Bishop Donald Trautman about the charges against Smith, but that the bishop was not immediately available for comment because he was traveling the diocese in preparation for Holy Week services.

Trautman in 2002 removed Smith from ministry, though he was still a priest, according to correspondence obtained by the Erie Times-News. Trautman wrote the parents of an Erie man who also had accused Smith of molesting him when he was a boy and Smith was at Sacred Heart Catholic Church at West 26th and Liberty streets in Erie.

"Father Smith no longer has the faculties of the Diocese of Erie to function as a priest here or anywhere," Trautman wrote the parents on March 18, 2002. "That means he will never say a public Mass or serve as a priest in any capacity in the Diocese of Erie or anywhere else. I do ask for your prayers for healing."

More investigations?

At least five priests in the Catholic Diocese of Erie were removed from ministry because of child sex-abuse allegations, the Erie Times-News found in a 2003 investigation. None except Smith has faced criminal charges. The unrevised statute of limitations had been a factor.

In April 2002, Erie County District Attorney Brad Foulk met with Trautman to review allegations of child sexual abuse made against priests in the diocese going back 40 years. Foulk said the statute of limitations -- which then limited the prosecution of sex crimes to when the victim turned 30 -- prevented him from pursuing any cases.

"We are satisfied that the diocese, through the bishop, has produced all of the files, all of the allegations reported to them, as far back as you can count," Foulk said at the time. "Some of these allegations are 20, 30, 40 years old.

"We have determined that, based upon the information we have available now, there are no prosecutable cases in the Diocese of Erie."

Foulk said Monday that he knows of no other cases statewide in which a priest has been charged under the expanded statute of limitations. He said he plans to hold a meeting in April on the prosecution of such cases with the members of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, of which Foulk is vice president and incoming president. He said the meeting will focus on how other prosecutors intend to handle such cases.

Schultz, the Crawford County district attorney, said "it is possible" that more people could come forward with accusations because of the Smith case. Schultz said his office will look into such allegations, while also following a policy he said he established in 2002, in light of the clergy scandal.

"We weren't going to go looking for victims," Schultz said. "But if someone wants to make a complaint, we would investigate fully."

A change in state law allowed the Crawford County District Attorney's Office to pursue criminal charges against former Roman Catholic priest Thomas E. Smith.

The passage of time, however, still limited how far the prosecutors could go in the case.

State police at Meadville charged Smith with four misdemeanor counts of corrupting the morals of children. Police allege Smith molested a boy between October 1968 and October 1970, when the boy was 10 to 12 years old.

The police could not charge Smith with any more serious crimes, Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz said. He said police charged Smith with corruption because that was the law on the books at the time -- in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- that best fits the allegations in the case against Smith.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Schultz said, the majority of the Pennsylvania law regarding sex crimes applied to offenses involving a man and a woman. He said the laws had not yet changed to contemplate crimes involving assailants and victims of the same gender.

For example, Schultz said, the crime of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse was not yet on the books.

"We have to use the statutes that were in effect at the time the offenses were allegedly committed," Schultz said of the Smith case.

The extension of the statute of limitations applies to only criminal prosecutions. The statute of limitations in Pennsylvania for filing a civil suit over claims of child sexual abuse is no more than 12 years after the plaintiff turns 18 years old.

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