Sex Charges Are Dropped Against Allentown Priest
Charges that an Allentown priest sought a minor for sex in South Bethlehem were dropped yesterday when two key witnesses failed to appear for a preliminary hearing.
District Justice Nancy Matos Gonzalez of Bethlehem dismissed charges of promoting prostitution and criminal attempt to corrupt the morals of a minor against Monsignor Stephen T. Forish, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians parish in East Allentown.
The dismissal came on a motion by defense attorney Anthony Blasco and over the objections of Northampton County Assistant District Attorney William Matz, who asked that the hearing be postponed.
About 40 people crowded the courtroom to support Forish, 51, who also coordinates anti-abortion activities for the Allentown Catholic Diocese's Pro-Life Office. Among them were the Rev. Robert Cofenas, assistant pastor at Our Lady Help of Christians, and Sister Charlene, school principal.
"I think he's innocent," said Pauline Troxel, 79, of Allentown, a parishioner for 55 years who was at the hearing. "Some people make a story out of nothing. He is wonderful. Everybody loves him.
"I hope he comes back. Maybe some people will drop out, maybe no one will. But why should you drop out of a church if a priest makes a mistake?"
Asked to comment after the charges were dropped, Forish only shook his head.
Deacon John W. Murphy Jr., diocese director of information, said in a prepared statement, "Based on the dismissal of the charges today, because of the failure of the complainant to appear at the hearing, the veracity of the original complaint can certainly be called into question.
"It is our understanding that the district attorney wants to look into the reason behind this failure to appear, and the defense counsel will be meeting with the district attorney."
Forish was arrested Sept. 22 after he drove up to Luis Torres, 22, of 1173 Mechanic St., at Mechanic and Hobart streets and asked if he was interested in sex for money, police said. When Torres said no, Forish allegedly asked if he knew any 15-year-old boys who would be interested. Torres then called police.
Torres' sister, Milagras Figueroa, said she sent her brother outside to investigate a noise, and Forish stopped to ask directions. Then he asked for sex, said Figueroa, who witnessed the incident. She said her brother refused and threw a glass of water at him.
Torres and Figueroa could not be contacted yesterday. No one answered the phone or the front door of their residence. A sign on the front door stated, "Keep out. Pest control chemicals have been applied to these premises. Please stay out."
Neighbors, who declined to be identified, said they believe the family moved out in the past few days, probably during the night.
Matz asked Gonzalez to continue the hearing to a future date. He said police could not find Torres and Figueroa or determine why they did not appear.
Matz said Forish's attorneys had requested a previous continuance and "we did not object. At that time, we were ready and able to proceed with the case."
Blasco opposed the continuance, saying, "The case has been on the books since Sept. 22. The prosecution had ample time and opportunity to prepare and have witnesses present." He also noted several announcements were in the media about the hearing.
"We are here," he said, "we are ready and it's time to get on with it."
Gonzalez, describing the case as "high-profile," asked Matz why his witnesses were not present.
"We don't know where they are," Matz said. "Police were at their home (Monday) night, and nobody was there." He said the two were given notice to appear.
Matz said he didn't think "the issue of the defendant being a priest or the notoriety of the case had any bearing on his request for a continuance."
Gonzalez told Matz the defense request for a continuance was made in time for the court to notify everyone involved not to appear. She said the witnesses were properly notified and she could have subpoenaed them if there was a question they would not appear to testify.
Gonzalez, while dismissing the charges, said the prosecution "has the absolute right to refile the charges."
"We are not in a position at this time to say if the charges will be refiled," Matz said. "We will have to find the witnesses and sit down and talk to them to determine what has happened.
"We don't want to try this case any differently than any other. We will have a decision in the next week or so."
He said the court sent notices to the witnesses and noted subpoenas are usually not sent to witnesses unless the case as been sent to court. "I did not know this was a problem," he said.
Patrolman Chris Bennick, the prosecutor in the case, said he had no comment on Gonzalez's decision.
Bishop Thomas Welsh appointed the Rev. Stephen Maco as temporary administrator at Our Lady Help of Christians after Forish's arrest.
It was unclear whether Forish will resume his diocesan duties.
"The official position of the diocese was to await the results of an objective hearing of the facts surrounding these allegations," diocese spokesman Murphy said in his statement. "We will refrain from any additional comment until the matter is completely resolved."
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