HARTFORD — A prosecutor on Wednesday dropped the most serious charges against a Catholic priest who had been accused of sexually assaulting a teenager, resulting in a six-month suspended sentence on a lesser charge.
A series of pretrial rulings on excluding evidence by Hartford Superior Court Judge Juliett L. Crawford eviscerated the state's case against the Rev. Paul Gotta, prompting prosecutor Debra Collins to offer Gotta the opportunity to resolve the case by pleading guilty to a charge of second-degree breach of peace.
Judge Carl E. Taylor accepted the plea and sentenced Gotta to a six-month suspended sentence and two years of conditional discharge.
Gotta entered the guilty plea under the Alford doctrine, meaning he did not agree with the state's evidence, but wanted to plead guilty to the reduced charge rather than risk a trial and a greater sentence.
Gotta still faces a trial on federal firearm charges in February.
Taylor had Collins enter into the court record her reasons for extending the plea offer. They included rulings by Crawford that excluded "evidence of other crimes, wrongs or acts as they related to five of the state's key witnesses; evidence about a firearm; evidence about Gotta's pending federal firearms case; and admission of Gotta's "videotaped interview by the federal government which relates to crucial details narrated by the defendant, including the defendant's position as to the church's rule of celibacy."
Two of the state's witnesses have also died, Collins told the judge.
In a statement to the judge, the alleged victim maintained that Gotta had abused him.
"You worked so hard to build trust in all those around you, only to expose your true self to a very select few," the man told the judge. "The truth is that you are nothing more than an abuser and a master manipulator."
Gotta's defense attorney, William Paetzold, said little, other than asking the judge to accept the plea agreement. Gotta declined to address the judge before sentencing.
In accepting the agreement, Taylor said: "I understand the practicalities of what is facing both sides."
Outside court, Paetzold said Gotta's decision to plead guilty was difficult.
"We have allegations of sexual abuse committed by a Catholic priest," Paetzold said. "The social climate for these types of allegations is not favorable for defendants. Going to trial is always risky because juries are so inherently unpredictable. Even if you have an innocent client and can present a strong defense, if the state offers a breach of the peace with no jail and no probation, for whatever their reason, you're a fool if you turn down the deal."
A jury had been picked for Gotta's trial on charges of second-degree and fourth-degree sexual assault and it was scheduled to begin Nov. 23.
The breach of peace charge related to an incident that is alleged to have occurred in January 2012. The complainant told police that he worked at the rectory where Gotta lived and that when he announced he was there, Gotta called him upstairs. When he walked into Gotta's bedroom, "Gotta jumped out of a closet … and onto the victim," Collins told the judge. "The victim fell to the ground and [Gotta] pinned the victim to the ground using physical force."
Gotta, Collins said, was wearing only underwear and was kneeling on the man's arms and sitting on his upper chest."
The federal firearms case against Gotta is scheduled to go to trial in February. He remains free on bail and on leave from the Archdiocese of Hartford.
The alleged victim has a civil attorney pursuing a claim against Gotta.