The former pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Mechanicsburg has been removed from the ministry following an admission that he engaged in “inappropriate sexual contact with an adolescent” more than 30 years ago.
The Rev. Joseph M. Pease, who was pastor at St. Joseph’s for 17 years until 1995, resigned his position as pastor at Divine Redeemer Catholic Church in Mount Carmel on Dec. 13, diocese officials said.
Parishioners were stunned yesterday when they heard the news. The reverence and joy of the last Sunday Mass before Christmas gave way to a heavy silence, punctuated by gasps and tears, as the Rev. James Lyon, vicar general for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg, read a letter from Bishop Nicholas C. Dattilo detailing Pease’s removal.
The initial accusation against Pease came in June 1995, according to Dattilo’s letter. Diocese officials confronted Pease in 1995, Dattilo stated, but there were “discrepancies in the accounts” and Pease made no admission of guilt.
Pease underwent medical and psychiatric evaluations, but Dattilo’s letter said, “the results provided insufficient basis to resolve the discrepancies and to determine guilt.”
In July 1995, Pease along with about a dozen other priests in the diocese was reassigned, and he became pastor at Divine Redeemer.
On Dec. 10 of this year, the victim gave the diocese additional details about the alleged misconduct by Pease, according to Dattilo’s letter. Pease admitted to the inappropriate sexual contact and was removed Dec. 13.
“It’s difficult to understand how someone we love and know could cause such harm to a young person,” the Rev. Chester P. Snyder, pastor of St. Joseph’s, said yesterday.
The diocese has received no other reports of sexual misconduct about Pease, according to Dattilo’s letter. But Dattilo wrote that he “responded with appropriate and swift action” in accordance with diocesan policy.
Diocese officials have not provided details about the victim’s age or gender, or about the location of the alleged incident. Pease has served as a priest for more than 40 years at parishes within the Harrisburg diocese. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Pease’s removal comes during one of the most turbulent years on record for Catholic churches nationwide, and during a painful year for the Harrisburg diocese as well.
In April, the Harrisburg diocese announced it had received a credible report of sexual abuse of an adolescent at least 23 years ago by the Rev. John Allen, pastor of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Church in Penbrook.
Allen resigned April 5, the same day he was confronted with the allegation.
In 2002, the Diocese of Harrisburg has received 12 reports accusing 10 priests of sexual misconduct with minors. Seven of the 12 reports involved priests who were already deceased or who were from another diocese or religious community.
The incidents involving Pease and Allen were the only two that involved priests assigned to active ministry.
None of the 12 reports made locally this year involved activity that occurred in the last 16 years, diocesan officials said.
Most St. Joseph parishioners did not want to comment on the announcement about Pease yesterday, but the mood was made clear by the shaking heads, hugs and tears that followed yesterday’s service.
Mechanicsburg resident Charles Krajcsik has attended St. Joseph’s for more than 50 years. He remembers Pease as “a good priest,” but said priests are people, too.
“This is a very sad situation, but he is a human being after all,” Krajcsik said. “And we have to have faith; it’s not only local, but it’s happening nationally, too.”
Pease’s removal came the same day as the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, Boston’s archbishop and the man at the forefront of what many are calling the biggest crisis to ever hit the U.S. Roman Catholic Church.
Calls for Law’s resignation began after church files showed he had moved sexually abusive clergy from parish to parish went public in January. Similar incidents have been alleged at other parishes around the country.
In the ensuing church crisis, at least 325 of the country’s 46,000 priests have been removed from duty or resigned this year because of molestation claims.
America’s Roman Catholic bishops won Vatican approval last week for their revised sex abuse policy, requiring every diocese to bar priests who molest children from working in the church.
In the Diocese of Harrisburg, Dattilo adopted in 1989 and publicly declared in 1994 a zero tolerance policy toward sexual abuse of minors by priests and urged victims to come forward.
In the last 13 years, the diocese has received credible reports of sexual misconduct with minors by 19 priests, Chancellor Carol Houghton said in a November interview. She said none of the abuse happened after the late 1980s, and dates back to 1950.
The 15-county Diocese of Harrisburg is one of a few nationwide to have disclosed amounts related to sexual misconduct cases.
The diocese said it has spent about $1.6 million responding to sexual abuse of minors by priests since 1989. Those figures include $1.2 million in settlements paid to victims and $360,000 for legal fees and therapy for victims and priests.
Pease was ordained as priest in 1961 and has served at St. Joseph in Hanover, St. Peter in Mount Carmel and St. Patrick in York. He was director of vocations for the diocese from 1966 to 1971, then became assistant pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in charge of St. Paul, Atlas, where he served until 1973.
Pease was an administrator and pastor at St. John the Baptist in New Freedom from 1973 to 1978, then became pastor at St. Joseph’s in Mechanicsburg later that year.
Dattilo appointed the Rev. Monsignor Francis J. Hudak, senior priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish, as temporary parochial administrator of the Divine Redeemer parish until a new pastor is appointed. Dattilo spoke to the Mount Carmel parish Saturday night.
Mary Ann Boyarski, a spokesperson for the diocese, said yesterday the Northumberland County district attorney’s office has received copies of Dattilo’s letter to parishioners regarding Pease.
A new Pennsylvania law extended the criminal statute of limitations on child sex abuse from the 23rd to the 30th birthday of the victim.
At yesterday’s Mass, Snyder told the St. Joseph congregation he understood the announcement of Pease’s removal was difficult to take, especially during the Christmas holiday. Snyder and Lyon made the announcement at the end of the service.
“I know you may not feel in the mood for it just now, but let’s finish the service by singing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ and leave here in a prayerful mind,” Snyder said.