Priest Admits Groping Teen during Trans-atlantic Flight

By Jeff Whelan
The Star-Ledger

October 2, 2008

A Somerset County priest faces up to two years in jail after admit ting yesterday that he fondled a 16-year-old girl during a trans-Atlantic flight from Poland in July.

The Rev. Tomasz Adam Zielin ski, 32, pleaded guilty to abusive sexual contact aboard an aircraft and said he touched the girl on her thigh and groin without her permission as they sat next to each other on the flight to Newark Liberty International Airport.

"Did you do this with the intent to arouse or gratify your sexual desire?" U.S. District Judge Jose Li nares asked during a hearing in Newark.

"Yes," replied Zielinski, who wore a suit and his priest's collar.

Zielinski was removed from his position at Christ the King Church in Manville soon after he was charged in July. He had served as an associate pastor at the parish since April and is in the United States on a religious visa.

David Kwon, the attorney representing Zielinski, said his client will meet with immigration officials and volunteer to be deported. The judge scheduled sentencing for January.

Zielinski faces a maximum of two years in prison, but Assistant U.S. Attorney L. Judson Welle said federal sentencing guidelines call for between three months and one year behind bars. Immigration officials have informed the U.S. Attor ney's Office they do not intend to deport Zielinski until completion of any sentence, Welle said.

He declined to say what sen tence prosecutors would seek.

"It's clear the conduct here is very serious and there is a minor victim involved. Those are going to be important considerations," Welle said.

The crime occurred during a flight from Poland on which Zielin ski was returning from vacation. He attempted to unzip the girl's pants, according to a criminal complaint filed in the case. The girl left her seat and asked for assistance from the flight crew, who moved her to a different seat for the remainder of the flight, authorities said. Zielinski approached the girl in her new seat, apologized and asked for her forgiveness, the complaint said.

The flight crew ordered Zielinski back to his seat. FBI agents interviewed him four days later and he confessed, according to the complaint.

Though he served in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Metuchen, Zie linski is not a diocesan priest but a member of the Warsaw Province of the Redemptorist order. One of his superiors in the order, the Rev. Jan Kwiecien, attended the hearing.

Kwiecien said Zielinski, who is out on bail and prohibited from coming into contact with minors, is temporarily living at the Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, a convent in Woodbridge.

Kwiecien said Zielinski will be allowed to remain a priest, despite his guilty plea. Kwiecien also said he is still having trouble believing Zielinski was guilty, though the circumstances of the incident were "very bad for him." Kwiecien said Zielinski drank wine and beer on the plane, which may have contributed.

"He is a good man, a good priest. But I don't know what happened at this moment," Kwiecien said.

Joanne Ward, a spokeswoman for Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski of Metuchen, said the bishop revoked Zielinski's faculties as a priest in the diocese after his arrest, in accordance with a diocese policy regarding sexual abuse claims. She said the bishop has no further juris diction over Zielinski.

In a letter to parishioners of Christ the King parish in July, Bootkoski wrote, "I pray that your esteem for the Church and the sacred priesthood will not be shaken by this occurrence, and I ask you to join me in praying for the Lord's healing for all affected by this inci dent."


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