A former Catholic priest who pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual abuse has started his 18-month prison sentence at the Maryland State Detention Facility in Jessup.
In addition, 67-year-old Robert Petrella, who started his term June 30, was given three years of supervised probation.
According to the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office, Petrella pleaded guilty in March and was sentenced June 27 for 10 years for each count, but the judge suspended all but 18 months of the jail time.
Ramon Korionoff, spokesman for the county’s State’s Attorney’s Office, said he was pleased with the outcome despite the circumstances, including the weak child abuse laws of the ’60s and ’70s.
“The State’s Attorney’s Office is satisfied with the sentence and guilty plea,” he said. “It is very difficult to obtain guilty verdicts in jury trials for historical sex-abuse cases, especially ones that happened more than three decades ago.”
Korionoff said the incidents happened in 1966, 1971 and 1973. He added that Petrella was also charged in 1997 with other sex-abuse counts and spent seven days in jail.
Susan Gibbs, communications director for the Archdiocese of Washington in the District, said Petrella was removed from the ministry in 1989 and was laicized by the Vatican in February of this year.
“Being laicized, or returned to the lay state, is the most serious form of punishment the Vatican can propose,” Gibbs said. “It’s a permanent, legal punishment.”
Gibbs also said she sympathizes with the numerous victims of Petrella’s prurience, and said she’s happy the ordeal is over.
“It’s been a long road for some people,” she said. “He’ll have to take responsibility for what happened 30 years ago.”
That road continues for 46-year-old David Fortwengler of Matthews, N.C., who was one of the victims that came forward with allegations against Petrella. Growing up in Oxon Hill, Fortwengler said he was abused by Petrella at age 11.
“No matter what the sentence was, it wouldn’t make up for the pain I and other victims have endured,” he said. “The most important thing is that I’ll not suffer the regret of not having told.”
Fortwengler said he kept silent about the abuse until March 2002, when many others came forward in the wake of the Catholic Church abuse scandals. He said the collective strength of the victims gave him the confidence to come forward.
He said he was also outraged by the fact that numerous complaints about Petrella over the years were not enough to remove him from priesthood.
“I never would have been abused if the church removed him when they first heard the allegations,” he said.
Fortwengler said that although his faith in God hasn’t been shaken, he has cut his ties to he Catholic Church.
“In addition to sexual abuse, it was also spiritual abuse,” he said. “I always knew God didn’t do this to me, it was a criminal priest.”