case shows change in church
By Mark Guydish
April 07, 2014
WILKES-BARRE — The Rev. Phillip Altavilla, a
graduate of Bishop Hoban High School, now Holy Redeemer, is the
fourth diocesan priest to face a judge on sexual misconduct
charges in the last decade.
Altavilla’s hearing on three charges related to an
alleged incident with a 13-year-old girl in 1998 is set for
10:30 a.m. Wednesday before Lackawanna County District Judge
While the number may be disheartening to members of the
faith, it may also demonstrate the difference in how the
Catholic Church has handled such cases since the national
scandals at the turn of the millennium that prompted sweeping
Police charged Altavilla last week with one count each of
indecent assault, corruption of minors and criminal attempt of
indecent assault, all allegedly occurring Christmas morning with
a 13-year-old girl who had served midnight Mass at St.
Patrick’s Cathedral in Scranton, where Altavilla was
pastor at the time.
Altavilla was immediately suspended from priestly duties,
including his position as pastor of St. Peter’s Cathedral.
According to police, the girl called him while they listened in
and Altavilla admitted he plied the girl with alcohol, fondled
her feet and moved his hands up her legs.
In the wake of numerous cases of child molestation’s
and sexual misconduct, including repeated allegations of
cover-ups by moving accused priests to new parishes, the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops issued two new documents in 2002.
They were the “Charter for the Protection of
Children and Young People” and “Essential Norms for
Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual
Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons.”
Among other things, the new guidelines barred confidential
settlements of such cases unless confidentiality was requested
by the victim, required notification to and cooperation with
public authorities when allegations of sexual abuse are made and
called for immediate suspension of a priest upon allegations
pending the outcome of an investigation.
The new guidelines, coupled with a heightened public
scrutiny, have produced results, at least numerically.
Prior to the charter, the Diocese of Scranton had only one
priest charged and convicted of sexual abuse: The Rev. Robert
Caparelli, arrested in 1991 after a 19-year-old man told police
he had been molested at the age of 13, in 1985.
Another person came forward with more charges after that.
Caparelli spent the last 2-1/2 years of his life in prison.
That sole arrest came despite the fact that, according to
a report covering the years 1950 to 2002 completed by the
diocese for the USCCB, “allegations were made against 25
Diocesan priests” prior to the charter, and “the
allegations were founded in 15 of those cases.”
Since the charter was implemented, three priests have been
charged and sentenced in sexual misconduct cases, according to
Times Leader archives:
• The Rev. Albert Liberatore, accused of abusing a
minor from 1999 to 2002 beginning when the boy was 14. He
pleaded guilty in 2005 and was sentenced to 10 years probation.
A civil suit was filed and the diocese settled for $3 million in
• The Rev. Robert Timchak, arrested in October 2009
after the diocese received a tip and police seized a computer
with downloaded child pornography. He was sentenced November
2010 to six to 72 months in prison. While the charges were filed
in Pike County, Timchak had served locally, including at West
Hazleton’s Transfiguration Church before the parish school
was closed. Timchak had also written a column for The Times
• The Rev. Thomas Shoback, Wilkes-Barre, was charged
in June 2012 with sexually assaulting an altar boy in Tioga
County from 1991 through 1997. The victim was 11 when the
assaults started. Shoback, who had taught at Bishop Hoban High
school, was convicted in May 2013 and sentenced that August to
five to 10 years in prison.
Several other cases have led to priests suspended from
duties or to civil suits but not to criminal charges. According
to The Times Leader archives, Shoback’s brother, Edward J.
Shoback, a former diocesan priest, was suspended in 2004 amid
allegations of sexual abuse and was defrocked by the Vatican in
Monsignor J. Peter Crynes, a well-liked pastor at St.
Therese’s Church in Kingston Township, was removed from
active duty in May 2006 for allegations of misconduct with high
school girls 12 years earlier. The Vatican ordered him removed
from all public ministry.
The Rev. Carlos Urrutigoity and the Rev. Eric Ensey of the
Society of St. John, a conservative order that set up in Pike
County, were accused in 2001 of sexual misconduct with young
men. They were suspended and sent for evaluation, resulting in a
recommendation they be barred from ministry for life, and the
society was suppressed.
Yet the two surfaced in Paraguay, and Urrutigoity was
promoted to a high diocesan position recently, prompting Bambera
to issue statements distancing the Scranton Diocese from
Urrutigoity and restating the opinion that he was unsuitable for
Altavilla arguably is the highest-placed priest in the
diocese to face charges, having served numerous roles including
vicar general, moderator of the curia and director of ecumenism
and interfaith affairs. According to Times Leader archives, he
was a frequent guest homilist at area services.
The Rev. Gerald Gurka, pastor of St. John the Baptist
Church in Larksville, said Altavilla “attended his
father’s funeral and he (Altavilla) spoke so
eloquently.” He added Altavilla had always been “an
incredible speaker” who “made a point of going up to
people and being kind.”
“We pray for the victim and for him and for the
church,” Gurka said, “for truth and justice for all
Rabbi Larry Kaplan, who had worked with Altavilla through
the Interfaith Council, called his work on the council
“amazing” and the allegations
“My heart goes out to the woman involved and her
family and to the Catholic community as well, which has to deal
with this,” he said.