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Accusers Find Courage in Church Crisis

May 28, 2002 | The Washington Post One morning last month, a North Carolina contractor drove to Landover to let go of a secret he had kept for 34 years. When he was an altar boy at Oxon Hill's St. Columba Catholic Church in the late 1960s, the man told a Prince George's County police detective, he was molested by a priest named Robert J. Petrella.

A few days later, a Florida man called the same detective with a similar story. "I kept my secret buried for over 30 years because I was ashamed," he said, alleging that he, too, was abused by Petrella for several years in the late 1960s. "You don't know the shame."

Augustine Sahr, a 34-year-old telephone technician in Dallas, also found himself thinking about Petrella this spring and out of curiosity called the Prince George's courthouse in Upper Marlboro. Only then did Sahr discover that the six-month jail sentence Petrella received in 1997 for molesting him in the late 1970s had been reduced to seven days.

"I wanted to scream and lash out, but all I could do was cry on my mom's shoulders," Sahr said. "It took me some time to snap out of it and to get back to being me again."

Those three men are among scores of people who have been prompted by the Roman Catholic Church's unfolding scandal to come forward in recent months -- many for the first time -- with their stories of molestation by priests. It is a painful chain reaction, with every fresh report of decades-old sexual abuse emboldening others to talk about their own ordeals, victim advocates say.

Those who decide to break their silence are angry to have learned that so many others suffered as they did, but also hopeful that their complaints finally will be taken seriously.

"The climate has changed, and people believe us," said the North Carolina contractor, who, like the Florida man, is now in his forties and agreed to be interviewed on the condition that his name be withheld. "It's no longer, 'Oh, here's another altar boy who can't get over that Father So-and-So touched him and he wants a couple of bucks.' "

The pedophilia scandal has triggered a volatile mix of emotions among past victims, said David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a national support group.

"Some survivors feel a sense of validation that so much is finally being exposed," he said. "But at the same time, it's very painful and traumatic. You get in the car in the morning and you don't know if you're going to hear your favorite oldie or a story about another coverup in yet another diocese."

Most of the incidents now coming to light occurred many years ago, in dioceses that have since adopted tougher policies on reporting accusations of abuse and disciplining offenders. But for the alleged victims, the repercussions from those events have remained strong.

Even now, said the Florida man who alleges that Petrella abused him more than 30 years ago, "I smell his cologne and I immediately freak out. I can just go into a sweat."

Treatment, Then Dismissal


The Archdiocese of Washington, too, is still haunted by the Petrella case. Between the mid-1960s and 1988, archdiocese officials sent him away three times for psychiatric treatment and evaluation following allegations of abuse, allowing him each time to return to parish work. They finally dismissed him in 1989 after learning of Sahr's allegations.

But in recent weeks, the archdiocese has received calls from two people who reported that they saw Petrella in the Washington area wearing a priest's collar, said archdiocesan spokeswoman Susan Gibbs. As a result, the archdiocese issued an alert to its parishes and other dioceses May 16, asking them to place in their Sunday bulletins a reminder that Petrella is not a priest in good standing.

A Prince George's police spokesman confirmed that the department is investigating two new complaints against Petrella.

Petrella's attorney, William C. Brennan, declined to give Petrella's whereabouts to a reporter or to comment on the new accusations. "Neither my client nor I are going to comment about the facts of this case or any other case," Brennan said.

Petrella, ordained in 1964, was put on leave and given psychiatric treatment twice in the 1960s after the archdiocese received complaints that he had made advances toward boys, Gibbs said. He was suspended again in 1988 after another allegation, she said. In all, Petrella served at seven parishes, eventually becoming pastor of St. Thomas More in Southeast Washington and St. Bernardine of Siena in Suitland.

The archdiocese's actions were typical of an era when sexual abuse of children was viewed as a moral lapse rather than a chronic illness, Gibbs said. "Of course in hindsight, you wish this never happened at all," she said. "But we did everything that was normally done at the time, given the medical and societal understanding of this problem."

'A Certain Kind of Evil'


The North Carolina man said Petrella began molesting him about 1967. It consisted of "fondling and groping," usually in a room at St. Columba's before Mass, the man said. "All the altar boys knew to stay away from Father Petrella [because] he'll stick his hands down your pants," he recalled.

"The part that bothers me the most, apart from a certain kind of evil that it takes to do what he did, is the betrayal of trust," he added. "I've never repressed the memory of what happened. I've just repressed talking about it."

He said he called the archdiocese in 1994, during an earlier flurry of news reports about pedophile priests, to tell officials what Petrella had done. He said he was told that Petrella was no longer a priest, and he was offered counseling, which he declined. The archdiocese said it had no record of his call.

Last month, the contractor said, the nationwide publicity about sexual abuses prompted him to call the archdiocese again so that he could "make a difference in a positive way." The archdiocese again offered him counseling, and this time he accepted.

The next day, he got a call from Prince George's police detective Wayne Pyles, who said he had been contacted by the archdiocese's attorney, and he met with Pyles shortly afterward.

The Florida man, now a management consultant, had never told his story to church officials or police before this year. He said Petrella started abusing him when he was in seventh grade in suburban Maryland and continued doing so for several years, usually in the priest's car. Petrella would begin by rubbing his legs, saying that "he was checking . . . for fat," the man recalled.

He, too, remembered that there was "talk among the altar boys to stay away from Father Petrella."

When he contacted archdiocesan officials last month, he received an apology. "They were very cordial. They offered me counseling; they said, send them the bill," the man said.

He said he came forward after all these years "out of love for other children. . . . From this day forward, I am not going to be responsible for [Petrella] harming another lamb."

Both men are now married and have told their stories to their spouses but not to their parents. Both feel that the archdiocese, at the time of the earlier allegations against Petrella, should have taken more aggressive steps to find other victims in the parishes where he served.

"If those guys did not know about me, they should have," said the North Carolina man. "How much of an effort did they make to find other victims?"

Warnings of Damnation


The current publicity about sexual abuse by priests also dredged up bad memories for Sahr. "A lot of the hurt came back. . . . I started having dreams again," he said.

Sahr said Petrella molested him repeatedly in 1977 and 1978, sometimes in the parking lot of Sahr's Oxon Hill home but mainly in the rectory near St. Thomas More School.

"If you got into trouble, you couldn't go outside for recess. You had to sit on a bench," he recounted. "Petrella would come by and ask what happened, and he'd ask you to go up to the rectory to talk. That was how it happened the very first time."

Petrella, he said, warned him that if he told anyone about the fondling he would be "damned to Hell."

In 1989, Sahr finally told his story to the parish priest at St. Thomas More, the Rev. Raymond J. Wadas. Wadas immediately took Sahr to the archdiocese, which offered him counseling and dismissed Petrella, revoking his right to celebrate Mass and perform sacraments.

At the time, Sahr did not want the public attention of a trial. "I was very fragile in my psyche," he said. But after four priests were indicted on child sexual abuse charges in Prince George's County in 1995, Sahr felt upset that Petrella had never been charged. Because Maryland, unlike the District, has no statute of limitation on child abuse, Sahr informed Prince George's police about the alleged abuse that had taken place outside his Oxon Hill home.

In January 1997, Petrella was indicted on four felony counts of sexual abuse of Sahr. But the state's attorney's office offered Petrella, then living in New Jersey, a plea bargain involving one misdemeanor battery count. In July 1997, Petrella entered an Alford plea, under which a defendant does not admit the offense but acknowledges that the prosecution has enough evidence to obtain a conviction.

At the Sept. 18, 1997, sentencing, Circuit Court Judge Richard H. Sothoron Jr. gave Petrella two years in prison and suspended all but six months of the sentence.

Petrella began serving the sentence Sept. 26. But Oct. 3, Sothoron held a hearing on a motion by Petrella's attorney to reconsider the sentence. The motion said Petrella's mother had cancer and needed his assistance.

Sahr and his mother, Francess Davies, said they were never informed of the Oct. 3 hearing, and the court record has no indication that they were present when Sothoron granted the motion, releasing Petrella after only seven days in jail.

The judge also ordered Petrella into a home detention program under supervised probation in Northampton County, Pa., for three years. But Northampton probation officials said they have no record of Petrella. In a December 2000 letter to the court, a Prince George's probation officer said she had received monthly reports from Petrella giving his Pennsylvania address but no correspondence from his probation officer.

"It appears that when Mr. Petrella was in Pennsylvania, he was not being supervised by anyone," said Racine Winborne, spokeswoman for the parole and probation division of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Clohessy, the spokesman for the victim support group, said the court's treatment of Petrella "was very, very common" for such offenders at that time.

"Priests were getting probation instead of jail time, and what jail time priests did serve was pretty minimal," he said. That may be changing, he added, "but the real test will be in six months when the public's attention is focused elsewhere."

Sothoron said in a recent interview that he thought Petrella had received adequate punishment "given what was presented to me then. . . . I think the sentence was a lot more significant than other judges would have imposed."

Sahr's mother, who lives in Suitland and works for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, feels otherwise. "No justice was done," she said. She added that her son is now "trying to get his life together, but this really is upsetting to him and it's messing him up. This thing is just hanging over him and will not let him go."

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