Sex Charges against Priest Stun Members of His Parish
Congregation Stands behind Pottsville Pastor Accused of Fondling Teen
By Chuck Ayers
Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
August 1, 1997
The revelation that their priest is charged with molesting a 17-year-old hitchhiker has parishioners of a Pottsville church reeling.
And while congregations can be unified or fractured by the priests who lead them, the disclosure involving the Rev. James J. Mihalak has sharpened resolve in prayer and cemented congregation support behind a very popular steward at Mary, Queen of Peace.
"If anybody had a negative thing to say about him, I wouldn't know who it would be, to tell the truth," said parishioner Dorothy Ryan of Pottsville.
In the eight years Mihalak has served Mary, Queen of Peace, he has supported the guitar group and headed the church Ladies' Guild. On Mondays he traveled to Leader Nursing Home to deliver sermons and on Thursday nights, he could be found calling numbers for the church's bingo games.
Ryan, whose husband Mihalak buried and whose four grandchildren he baptized, is apparently among a vast majority of the 300 member families at the church who support him.
"Everybody loved him," said Ryan, who reveres Mihalak.
Mihalak, 46, allegedly fondled a Tamaqua boy who was thumbing his way home from Cressona June 20. He was driving his silver-gray Honda when he picked the youth up near the Cressona Mall along Route 61, according to police.
During the rambling drive along Route 209, police allege, Mihalak repeatedly complimented the teen on his muscle tone and felt his arms, legs, stomach and chest. The priest twice asked the boy if he wanted him to pull off the road, but the youth declined, saying he wanted to go home, according to police accounts.
On a narrow country road off Route 209 in Tuscarora, Mihalak allegedly fondled him. When he saw the boy in tears, Mihalak returned to Route 209, where the youth left the car, police said.
Upon learning of the charge, the Catholic Diocese of Allentown immediately suspended Mihalak from his religious duties, according to Deacon John W. Murphy Jr., the diocese spokesman.
Typically, when such allegations are made, the priest will undergo psychological assessment to determine the scope of the problem, Murphy said.
Murphy said he suspects Mihalak is at a residential treatment facility but was not certain. State Trooper Jeffrey Szczecina said an additional charge of corruption of minors was not filed because Mihalak may have reasonably believed the boy was at least 18.
While the case is pending, church routine continues.
Permanent Deacon Stephen Andrusisian has delivered the daily morning sermons, asking for prayers supporting Mihalak. Today, a visiting pastor will take the pulpit.
Marie Egan, who lives a few houses from the church on Center Street, echoed the sentiments of Ryan and crystalized the sentiments of others.
"I know he was a very nice man. I'm shocked. I can't believe this of him," Egan said.
And although Murphy said Mihalak was better known to him through the words of others, nothing he heard about the priest was less than glowing. That the charges against Mihalak may be true belies the assessment of everyone who knew him, according to Murphy.
"You wouldn't have guessed it in a million years," Murphy said.
Before his latest assignment, Mihalak was administrator at Ss. Peter and Paul, St. Clair, 1988-1989; pastor at St. Ann's, Frackville, 1987-1989; professor at Cardinal Brennan High School, Fountain Springs, 1984-1987; pastor at St. Stanislaus, Shenandoah, 1984-1987; principal of Pius X High School, Roseto, 1982-1984; professor at Pius X, 1976-1982; and assistant pastor at St. Peter's, Coplay, in 1976.
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