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Former Priest Pleads Guilty To Decades-Old Sexual Abuse

Mar 27, 2003 | The Express-Times

A defrocked priest who either lives or maintains a home in Williams Township has pleaded guilty in Maryland to an allegation that he sexually abused a boy 30 years ago.

The former pastor, a repeat offender, agreed to a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison, a term that the former priest's victim deemed as inappropriately light.

"Eighteen months is nothing," the victim said. "It's nothing. There's no doubt about it."

Tuesday's plea closed a felony case filed by prosecutors in Prince George's County, Md., a suburb situated immediately east of Washington, D.C.

Robert Joseph Petrella, listed in court records as a resident of 255 Gaffney Hill Road, Williams Township, entered his admission of guilt before Prince George's Circuit Court Judge Michael P. Whalen.

Petrella, 65, was released on his own recognizance, without bail or penalty, until sentencing May 22.

In the meantime, Whalen ordered Petrella to shun contact with any person younger than 18.

Court records and directory assistance listed no Northampton County phone number for Petrella. The twice-convicted pedophile could not be reached for this story.

William C. Brennan Jr. of Upper Marlboro, Md., Petrella's lawyer, declined comment.

"The case isn't over yet," Brennan said. "We have to go to sentencing. So I'm not going to say anything."

Petrella was convicted in 1997 of sexually abusing another boy in his charge.

Catholic authorities, who had required Petrella to undergo counseling for other instances of child abuse, stripped Petrella of his priestly faculties.

For his first conviction, Petrella ultimately served only seven days in prison. Maryland authorities released him on Oct. 3, 1997, reportedly to care for his ailing mother.

Petrella took up residency in Pennsylvania even after the state specifically denied an application for his parole to be maintained in some community in the state, The Express-Times reported last year.

"These cases were not that frequent in this time frame, as you might imagine," Maryland Circuit Court Judge Richard H. Sothoron Jr., the jurist who released Petrella, said in an interview. "And one of the specific factors was he had been defrocked, which is something you don't hear too often even today."

Charged last year with performing what Maryland considers an "unnatural/perverted sex act" upon one youth, Petrella this week admitted his guilt in a case that dated to 1973.

Prosecutors, facing no statute of limitations on sex crimes against children in Maryland, relied on statements made by a man now 41 years old. The victim last year alleged that Petrella had performed oral sex on him when he was a 12-year-old altar boy at St. Thomas More parish in Washington, D.C.

Now a school teacher in Maryland, the former altar boy claimed Petrella had abused him between March 1, 1973, and Sept. 30, 1973, at an address in Adelphi, Md.

"It was close to 30 years ago. Being from a large family, I had older brothers who were altar boys, and I did not understand what (Petrella) was about," said the victim, who requested anonymity for this story. "He started coming on to me. I didn't know what to do."

"You always seek the approval of adults. The last thing you want to do is make an adult not happy with you," the victim said, explaining his mindset as a 12-year-old altar boy. He did not immediately tell his parents what was happening.

The victim has married and started his own family. He says he does not generally think about the sexual abuse he suffered as a boy. He prefers to remain anonymous, like other victims of sex crimes, because he is a teacher and he has worked hard to establish a bond of trust with his students and their parents.

The man was not aware of Petrella's plea bargain until he learned about it Wednesday from the media. He expressed some disappointment with the sentence, which he considered lenient.

If convicted in open court, Petrella would have been eligible for a 10-year term in jail.

Prosecutors in Prince George's County did not respond to two calls for comment.

Petrella last May was the subject of an alarm sounded throughout the capital region.

The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., issued a warning to all churches that Petrella had been spotted at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception wearing a priestly collar.

The report sparked fears that Petrella was masquerading as a priest in spite of his 1997 conviction.

The victim who filed the new complaint against Petrella in 2002 said he had seen the pedophile priest featured in a television news report. The man decided to come forward then.

"I would never pursue something out of angst or to make a name for myself," the teacher stated. "When I saw his face on the TV ... I said, `You know what, I've got to do something. I'm sure that he's ruined other people's lives.'"

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