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Monsignor's Prostitution-Related Trial Ends with Jury's Not-Guilty Verdict
Tearful Allentown Priest Thanks God and Lawyers for Help during Ordeal

By Lauri Rice-Maue
Morning Call
January 17, 1998

It took a Northampton County jury a little more than four hours Friday to relieve Monsignor Stephen T. Forish of the ordeal that has lasted for more than a year.

Forish's face reflected an intense anticipation as the six men and six women who would decide his fate filed into Judge F.P. Kimberly McFadden's courtroom.

When the foreman announced that he and his fellow panel members had found the Allentown priest not guilty of prostitution-related charges, a look of relief took over, followed by tears.

One of the dozen or so supporters remaining in the courtroom last night gasped loudly, despite a prior warning from the judge that she wouldn't tolerate any outbursts.

Forish's lawyers, Jacqueline Taschner and Anthony Blasco, who is a longtime friend of the priest who once served at St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Easton, also wiped tears from their eyes at the culmination of the three-day trial.

"Thank God!" Blasco later exclaimed.

Forish, coordinator of the Pro-Life Office for the Diocese of Allentown for 21 years, also offered his thanks to the Lord, as well as Bishop Thomas Welsh, his lawyers and his former lawyer, Jack Spirk, who stepped down from the case after his recent appointment as county solicitor.

"I'm just so grateful," said the 52-year-old priest, who is a native of McAdoo, Schuylkill County, and still maintains a home there.

Forish spoke of the ordeal the accusations and prosecution have had on him for more than a year. "I'm devastated. I've never been through anything so painful in my life," he said during his testimony. "People in the parish, in the pro-life movement and in my family have been destroyed by this."

Forish also said he believed he would have some rebuilding to do, but was looking forward to getting back to his congregation at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in east Allentown, from which he took a voluntary leave of absence until the case was resolved.

"It'll be good to get back in a public setting," said Forish, adding that he shied away from making any public appearances since his Sept. 22, 1996, arrest because of his fear that he would be hounded by the media.

About two dozen of his supporters, including priests, nuns and parish members, showed up every day of the trial.

"Some of these people I haven't seen in 20 years," said Forish. "In spite of all the doubt, these people had enough faith and love. No one who knows me ever believed it and that to me was such a wonderful thing."

Joan Gonzalez, who was married by Forish and whose son was baptized by the priest, said she was thrilled with the verdict.

"I've known this man for 26 years and I always knew he was not guilty. He's a wonderful priest and a wonderful person. This is a wonderful day for all of us."

The prosecution, headed by Assistant District Attorney Eric Dowdle, based its case on accusations made by Angel Figueroa Jr. of Bethlehem, an admitted heroin user who goes by the nickname Poppo.

Figueroa and his sister, Milagros, were the main witnesses against Forish. The siblings failed to show up for the first preliminary hearing and didn't come to court Monday when the trial was scheduled to start.

Milagros Figueroa turned herself in Tuesday after she found out police were looking for her, and her brother was found by Bethlehem police Tuesday night and lodged in the prison to ensure his availability to testify Wednesday. He said he was high on heroin when he was apprehended, but denied being under the influence of drugs or alcohol the night he said he was propositioned by Forish.

Figueroa said Forish asked to perform a sex act on him for money around 1 a.m. after pulling his car over outside the home the Figueroas were staying at in the 1100 block of Mechanic Street.

"Absolutely not," the priest replied when Blasco asked him if Figueroa's accusations were true.

Forish, who got his chance to tell what happened that night for the first time Friday, said he asked a man that he still could not identify as Figueroa because of the darkness and distance between them for directions because he was unfamiliar with that section of South Bethlehem.

He said he didn't know what street he was on when he saw Figueroa.

When Forish asked Figueroa how many blocks from 3rd Street he was, he said Figueroa "acted like he didn't know what I was trying to say."

When Forish said he told Figueroa he was driving around for 15 minutes trying to find a place to eat, he said, "The language got ugly and there were curses. I didn't know what was wrong with him, and I just left."

Forish, a diabetic, said he got up at 4:30 a.m. the day before, took a walk, had breakfast and prayed before heading to Philadelphia to perform a wedding. He arrived back in Bethlehem at the Pro-Life Office on Stefko Boulevard, where he did some work and got some files together before heading back home to Allentown.

Because he hadn't eaten for some time, his condition left him feeling shaky and he went in search of a pizza parlor. He said pizza seems to help him best when his diabetes causes him to be in that state, so he headed toward a pizza parlor he knew at 4th and Hayes streets, but it was closed.

Before his encounter with Figueroa, he saw a man defense investigators later identified as Charles Boyer, who pointed to opposite directions where two restaurants could be found. But Forish couldn't find anything open.

Boyer's testimony backed up Forish's account.

After Figueroa gave his account to police, who arrived at the Mechanic Street address to drop off a drunken relative shortly after he said Forish left, Patrolman Joseph Ocasio pulled the priest over for running a red light on Webster Street.

Forish testified that he did not drive through a red light, and that he didn't see a red light.

No long afterward, Patrolman Christopher Bennick, the officer Figueroa gave his report to, came to the scene and began questioning Forish. The priest said Bennick began questioning him an aggressive manner, accusing him trying to solicit sex from people, and of being a liar when he denied it.

When Bennick said he had two people who would say that he did, he said, "Bring them here." In earlier testimony, Bennick said Forish asked if we could "give him a break because is he is a Catholic priest and all because of one mistake, his life could be ruined."

Bennick brought the Figueroas to the scene and they both identified Forish. Milagros Figueroa later testified that although she saw Forish, she never heard the conversation between him and her brother.

After the verdict, Forish said he didn't believe that the Figueroas were lying.

"I only know that they were wrong," he said.

In his closing argument to the jury, Blasco said the decision to file charges against Forish based on accusations by such questionable witnesses was purely political because the district attorney's office and the police didn't want to be criticized for what some might perceive as showing favoritism to a priest.

No one else would have been charged on such flimsy evidence, said Blasco.

But District Attorney John Morganelli dismissed Blasco's claims, saying many criminal cases are based on testimony from such witnesses because a lot of crimes in general are committed in front of people with questionable reputations.

And he said he would not prosecute a case if he was convinced that a witness was lying.

"It would have been a cloud over Monsignor Forish's and our office if the case had not been heard by a jury," said Morganelli. "I'm satisfied with the decision."

 
 

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