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  Ex-Jersey Priest Arrested on Sex Charges

By Jim O'Neill and Tom Haydon
Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey)
August 21, 1997

A former New Jersey priest, described as a well-liked man and a dedicated worker, has been accused of sexually assaulting an altar boy 10 years ago while serving in a Roman Catholic parish in Perth Amboy.

Michael Santillo, 48, was arrested last week at an upstate New York rectory and is being held without bail, awaiting return to New Jersey to face four counts of sexual assault and child endangerment handed up by a Middlesex County grand jury.

Assistant Middlesex Prosecutor Julia McClure said the grand jury in May charged that Santillo, while he was the pastor at St. Mary's R.C. Church in Perth Amboy, sexually assaulted a 13-year-old altar boy on several occasions between January and July 1987.

The panel charged that the youngster was invited into the priest's living quarters at St. Mary's rectory, where Santillo allegedly performed oral sex on the child. McClure said the number of alleged assaults is not known. She said the altar boy, now 23, could only recall several incidents.

Santillo was described yesterday as a pleasant fellow who did his job well and, although he hadn't been in upstate New York long enough to make any close friends, was well-liked. That's why parishioners at St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church in Schenectady, N.Y., where Santillo was employed as an office worker, were stunned to learn he was arrested.

"People were saddened" to learn of the charges, said Rev. John Provost, pastor of St. John's. "We take the allegations seriously."

Santillo served at St. Mary's in Perth Amboy between 1985 and 1989 and resigned from the priesthood in February 1992, according to police, parishioners and church officials. They said he left to care for his sickly parents in Florida and helped nurse them back to health.

There were no allegations against him when he left the priesthood, and he was told he could resume his service to the church at any time, according to church officials and parishioners.

Parishioners at St. Mary's, one of Perth Amboy's most popular churches, also were stunned by Santillo's arrest.

"He's a very fine man," said James Hardiman, a longtime church member who was skeptical of the allegations. "He carried out the duties of pastor quite caringly. He always had time, if you had a problem. He would sit down and talk with you. It's very sad."

The former altar boy told his family about the alleged assaults four years ago, and a report was filed with the prosecutor's office in New Brunswick, according to McClure. But the investigation was dropped when the alleged victim said he did not want to pursue the case.

The young man reconsidered and decided to press charges, the assistant prosecutor said. Police said the man, whose identity was withheld by authorities because he was the victim of an alleged sexual assault, would not talk to reporters.

The grand jury reviewed the charges and handed up its indictment in May, McClure said. The indictment was sealed in New Brunswick by Superior Court Judge Alan A. Rockoff.

Police wanted the charges sealed until they were able to locate Santillo, McClure said. The indictment was unsealed Aug. 8 after police traced the defendant to Schenectady.

Capt. Stephen Kaminsky of the Middlesex prosecutor's office said Santillo was not on the run. "He didn't know we were looking for him," he said. Police found him though postal records, Kaminsky said.

Officials at St. Mary's and the Diocese of Metuchen declined comment yesterday, but said in a prepared statement that Santillo was ordained May 17, 1975, and served at various parishes in the Trenton and Metuchen dioceses until he left the ministry Feb. 18, 1992. They declined further comment.

"It was a very difficult time for him," Provost said, referring to the illnesses suffered by Santillo's parents.

After leaving the priesthood, Santillo lived with his parents in Florida and worked at various office-management jobs, authorities said. He began working as an administrative assistant at St. John's in February, where his duties included scheduling meetings and providing rooms for various church groups.

He had no contact with children and did not serve as a priest during his tenure, Provost said.

Parishioners "enjoyed working with him during the brief time he was here," the pastor said. "He was respected" and "did a professional job."

"He wasn't here long enough to make any close friends," he added.

 
 

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