Ex-Priest Avoids Trial on Sex Charges

By Lynne Bumpus-Hooper
Orlando Sentinel (Florida)
January 17, 1996

Prosecutors were able to achieve what they consider an important victory Tuesday when they accepted a no-contest plea minutes before the trial of a former priest and youth counselor was to begin.

By entering a plea agreement with former Catholic priest and youth counselor Thomas J. Pagni III - facing 13 charges involving sexual acts with children - the state effectively has stopped Pagni from working with children again.

In the case scheduled to start Tuesday, Pagni, 45, was charged with having sexual relations with a teen-ager who had been in a counseling group he led in 1992. Similar charges involving two other young boys were pending.

Instead, Pagni, in a quiet voice, entered no-contest pleas to all of the charges and was judged guilty by Circuit Judge Jere Lober. The proposed 10-year sentence falls within state guidelines. Sentencing is set for Feb. 21.

Most occupations that involve work with children, such as day care or counseling, prohibit the employment of anyone convicted of sexual offenses.

A civil suit, in which Pagni is a defendant along with Catholic Church officials, is pending in circuit court. That suit was filed by some of the victims in the criminal cases and alleges that the church knew about Pagni's sexual problems.

Pagni worked as a priest in Brevard and Lake counties, and several allegations of misconduct were made to church officials. Pagni was diagnosed by a psychologist as having pedophilia, an abnormal desire by an adult for sex with children. The condition rarely is cured.

Despite that knowledge, the civil suit contends, the church paid for Pagni to become a youth counselor. The Catholic church denies the allegations.

The criminal charges first came to light in late 1992 when the father of a victim discovered Pagni in bed with his nude son, who was 17 at the time. The family knew Pagni because an older son had been referred by a state agency to Pagni, a counselor at Wenz Counseling Center, then operating in central Brevard County.

The family had participated in group counseling and had referred other friends to the center.

"The state felt this was a good plea because there were some problems with some of the cases and the victims were comfortable with accepting a plea," Assistant State Attorney Ann Perrin said.

Perrin said there were problems with the length of time between the offenses and some of the young men felt embarrassed about testifying.

"Some of them were very upset after an earlier hearing that did not get into as many details as a trial would have," Perrin said.


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