Suspended priest accused of inappropriately touching girl bound for trial
By Rebekah Brown
May 28, 2014
After the 13-year-old girl helped finish off two, 1-gallon bottles of red wine from Rome, the Rev. Philip Altavilla gave her a ride home.
Now 29, the woman testified at the Rev. Altavilla’s preliminary hearing Tuesday that he pulled the car over during that ride and rubbed her feet and thighs.
Magisterial District Judge John J. Mercuri ruled the suspended priest will go to trial on charges he inappropriately touched the woman 16 years ago.
The Rev. Altavilla’s attorney, Paul Walker, indicated during the hearing that he’ll dispute whether the charges match his client’s conduct. Mr. Walker also raised questions about the statute of limitations on the crime. Police charged the Rev. Altavilla, 48, with indecent assault, criminal attempt to indecent assault and corruption of minors after the now 29-year-old woman came forward in April and told police he gave her alcohol and touched her feet and legs.
The woman testified in court Tuesday about what happened after midnight Christmas Mass at St. Patrick’s Parish in 1998. At the Rev. Altavilla’s invitation, she and two other women returned to the rectory to celebrate Christmas.
The four finished two bottles of red wine. She had only sipped wine at Communion before, but that night she estimated she had six to seven glasses of wine. She said the Rev. Altavilla opened the wine and refilled her glass, as did the other two women present.
The Rev. Altavilla had told her parents he would get her home safe and some time around 3 a.m., she said he gave her a ride home.
“He kind of pulled on my skirt to pull my legs across” him, she testified.
Then he pulled the car over and started rubbing her feet and moving his hands up her thigh “in a massaging way.”
“I told him that he was out of line and went to get out of the car,” she said.
When she reached for the door, he apologized. But the woman said the incident made her feel upset, confused and uncomfortable.
“I had a feeling that it would have gone further,” she testified.
The Times-Tribune does not identify victims of sexual assault.
Mr. Walker questioned the woman about whether or not she had been wearing stockings while she rode with the Rev. Altavilla. She testified that she wore them, but Mr. Walker said that conflicted with a police report.
Scranton Police Detective Vince Uher also took the stand Tuesday, describing the admissions the Rev. Altavilla made both in an interview and during a recorded phone call with the woman.
“He admitted he had a fetish with feet and pantyhose,” Detective Uher said of the Rev. Altavilla, adding that the man also admitted his actions were for his own sexual gratification.
Mr. Walker did not call any witnesses, but referred to the definition of indecent contact, which refers to touching a sexual or intimate part of the body. He questioned whether feet and legs fell into that category.
Deputy District Attorney Jennifer McCambridge disagreed in court, saying that the touching gave the Rev. Altavilla sexual gratification.
“I think his own admissions are going to be a very important part of this case and moving forward I think the charges will stand,” Ms. McCambridge said after the hearing.
She also said she was confident that there would be no problem with the statute of limitations, adding that many people don’t disclose abuse until years later.
“How do you defend yourself when there’s an accusation raised that something occurred in 1998 and it’s now 2014?” Mr. Walker asked as he left the courthouse. “That’s where I have a problem.”
“This isn’t resolved,” he added.
The Rev. Altavilla said nothing as he left the courthouse, but Bill Nolan, who sat in on the hearing, said he still supports “Father Phil.”
“I wanted to support Father Altavilla,” Mr. Nolan said of his attendance. “I still think that, deep down in my heart, he will do good.”
The Rev. Altavilla remains free on bail.
“His faculties to exercise priestly ministry remain suspended,” Diocese of Scranton spokesman William Genello said in an email.