Inaction on priest’s alleged sex abuse of orphans at issue
Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014, 10:20 p.m
It began one day in 2009 with a fight among a group of boys — orphans, all of them — from the toughest, poorest streets of Honduras.
They argued about a priest, a pudgy, bespectacled older man from America who showed up now and then with gifts — offerings of cash and candy that carried a hefty price, according to Department of Homeland Security records.
Sometimes they paid by having sex with the man, records show. Other times, they showered nude, urinated or performed sex acts while he watched or took photos, records indicate.
But on that day when the boys argued about acquiescing to the Rev. Joseph D. Maurizio Jr.’s demands, an orphanage worker overheard the conversation and reported it, court records show.
Not long after, officials from the foundation running the orphanage traveled to Western Pennsylvania to report the boys’ allegations to the priest’s superiors at the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, the state Attorney General’s Office and the FBI, according to records.
But four years later, Maurizio was traveling to other orphanages, so a frustrated official sent an email about the allegations to a website, bishop-accountability.org, dedicated to tracking sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.
Nine months later, federal agents swarmed Maurizio’s church in Central City, Somerset County, and the Windber farm handed down from his parents, Italian immigrants who raised five children on a coal miner’s wages.
Agents confiscated four computers, hundreds of CDs, VHS tapes, thumb drives and a loose hard drive.
Two weeks later, Maurizio, 69, was arrested, charged with exploiting children at the orphanage — allegations he said were concocted when his private foundation, Humanitarian Interfaith Ministries Inc., withdrew funding for the orphanage.
“Father Joe has maintained his innocence from the very beginning,” said his attorney, Steven Passarello. “He intends on fighting these charges.”
Local supporters stand behind the man they say started a thrift store, supplies a food pantry and is first on the scene when a family is in crisis.
“Father would do anything for anybody,” said Jane Skone, a parishioner of his Our Lady Queen of Angels Church.
Maurizio remains jailed, suspended by the diocese.
And questions linger about why church officials did not act on the allegations, and why it took five years for authorities to bring charges.
When Maurizio moved to the Central City parish in 2003 from other assignments in the diocese, he had been visiting the Honduran orphanage for about four years, court records show.
Church bulletin items invited parishioners to accompany him to the orphanage in El Progreso, an agricultural city of 147,000 in northwestern Honduras viewed as a pass-through to the capital of Tegucigalpa.
At the orphanage, they could see boys learning skilled trades and how to read, write and manage money — useful tools in a nation stymied by an unskilled workforce and still rebuilding from a 1998 hurricane that killed nearly 6,000.
Those volunteers who could afford $500 to $1,100 for the trip could “help save some of the poor little orphaned and abandoned children who live on the streets of Honduras,” Maurizio said.
He spoke passionately about the children left parentless in the impoverished nation of 8.5 million, often a result of crime in the country that the CIA cites as having the highest homicide rate in the world.
Other bulletin entries asked parishioners to donate money to sponsor one of the orphanage’s 80 children living in dormitory-style buildings.
In 2006, Maurizio formed the nonprofit Humanitarian Interfaith Ministries, records show.
Adept at fundraising, he cobbled together money from large national organizations and small offerings from parishioners, records show.
With the help of organizations such as the Knights of Columbus of Pennsylvania, contributions grew from $23,000 in the foundation’s first year to $112,613 in 2012, when he listed net assets of more than $400,000, according to Internal Revenue Service filings.
Since his arrest, Knights of Columbus officials have said they are withdrawing their support and are “horrified” by the charges.
The foundation’s support accounted for 50 percent of the Honduran orphanage’s funding, according to Kevin Cestra, spokesman for ProNino USA, the Virginia-based nonprofit that operates the orphanage.
When ProNino officials confronted Maurizio with the boys’ allegations, funding became an issue.
“He threatened to cut off our funding if we made this public,” Cestra said.
But a former ProNino official said the group’s primary concern was the children.
“The first issue was protecting the children we support,” said Stephen Beer, a former ProNino USA board member.
What happened in the five years since the boys’ allegations were reported to the diocese, the state attorney general and the FBI remains somewhat murky — blurred by passing time, a lack of any public records of the report, changes in leadership at the state and diocese and the secrecy of the ongoing federal probe.
When reached by phone, retired Bishop Emeritus Joseph V. Adamec, who served the diocese when the allegations surfaced in 2009, said only: “If you want any information, you need to call the bishop’s office. They will have all the records.”
Diocese spokesman Tony DeGol did not return phone calls or an email.
Bishop Mark L. Bartchak, serving since 2011, told Our Lady Queen of Angels parishioners last week that he is not permitted to speak about the case.
“I don’t have words adequate to console you,” Bartchak said.
But Anne Barrette Doyle, co-director of bishop-accountability.org, described the diocese’s failure to act as “improper and irresponsible.”
D.J. Bragonier, a member of the diocese’s Allegation Review Board since 2001, said he was never told of the allegations.
Attempts to trace a report through state channels were fruitless.
Gov. Tom Corbett was attorney general in 2009. Corbett spokesman Jay Pagni said he found no one in the Corbett administration who knew about the case.
J.J. Abbott, spokesman for Attorney General Kathleen Kane, said the office has no record of a complaint.
The FBI initiated an investigation, which Homeland Security took over, when the unidentified board member contacted Doyle’s website, according to the complaint.
“We really have been working with HSI all along on this investigation, and we are continuing to work with them,” said Greg Heeb, spokesman for the FBI’s Pittsburgh office. “They have some investigative tools available to them to do certain things we couldn’t get accomplished.” He would not offer specifics.
Kenneth V. Lanning, a retired FBI agent and expert on sexual abuse crimes against children, said child sex abuse allegations against otherwise reputable individuals are difficult to piece together.
“You don’t want to move in until you have a strong case,” Lanning said.
The case might have been handed off to Homeland Security because the agency has authority to search individuals at border crossings, he said.
Maurizio took a two-year break from foreign travel after the allegations were made, according to records. He began traveling again in 2011, making 10 trips to Central American countries.
On one trip, Homeland Security arranged for Maurizio to be stopped so agents at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport could review images on a camera and other electronic devices, but nothing turned up, records show.
Maurizio remains in Cambria County Prison. A federal magistrate deemed he is a flight risk.