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  Worshipers in Sunrise Back Priest
'Father Tony' Highly Regarded

By Natalie P. McNeal
Miami Herald
June 17, 2002

Parishioners who worship at a Sunrise Catholic church defended a well-liked priest recently accused of sexually abusing a teenager as a priest in Nebraska during the late 1970s.

For eight years, the Rev. Anthony Petrusic, 71, worked as a part-time priest at St. Bernard Catholic Church.

"He is a respectful man. Sometimes I wonder if people are trying to seek revenge," said Aliette Richemond, who has attended the church for 14 years. "I wonder if some of these priests had a conflict with someone and the people are trying to go after them."

Petrusic, who is often referred to as "Father Tony," was taken out of active ministry by the Miami Archdiocese in mid-April after the Omaha Archdiocese stripped him of his duties.

Mary Ross Agosta, Archdiocese of Miami spokeswoman, said Sunday: "He was stripped of his duties because you have to be in good standing with your home diocese in order to function as a priest in any other diocese."

Father Michael Hourigan, who heads St. Bernard, said he did not tell worshipers about the action taken against Petrusic.

About the time Petrusic's duties were revoked, he went on his regularly scheduled summer vacation.

"I was hoping nothing would be there and he would be cleared," Hourigan said.

Petrusic, who lives in Hollywood, could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The author of several pocket-size inspirational books, Petrusic held Mass at St. Bernard about three times per week and assisted the sick, Hourigan said.

'CONNECTED TO GOD'

"Look at what he's written," parishioner Jennie Joe said Sunday, holding one of Petrusic's books in the church's gift store. "There is no way you can write something like this if you are not connected to God."

St. Bernard is a suburban church that has a middle-class, diverse congregation.

There are five Masses a week and up to 400 people attend each one during the season, Joe said.

In the summer, the church's many snowbird congregants head home. Petrusic's church in Omaha, Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, was founded by Croatian immigrants.

Although Petrusic can't work as a priest, he can still attend church at St. Bernard.

"He is welcome to worship here, that goes without saying," Hourigan said.

The move to relieve Petrusic of his ministering duties came after the Rev. Michael Gutgsell, the chancellor of the Omaha Archdiocese, learned that a man told The Omaha World Herald newspaper that Petrusic had sexually abused him when he was a teenager.

However, Gutgsell told the newspaper that the archdiocese had no records of sexual abuse complaints against Petrusic, who left Omaha in 1990.

The accuser, Willet Mather, 40, who grew up in Omaha under a different name, told the newspaper that Petrusic would often take him to a lake cabin in 1976 and 1977. Mather claimed the priest took nude photos of him when he was getting out of the shower or changing clothes while at the lake, but at the time thought Petrusic was only clowning around.

But during one visit to the cabin in late 1977, Mather alleged Petrusic put his hand inside the boy's overalls and tried to reach inside his underwear. Mather said he pulled away, ending the incident and their friendship.

In the mid-1980s, Mather said he was worried about the priest's access to other youths and called the archdiocese to report the incident.

TRANSFERRED

He said he met with a high-ranking official, but never heard back from the archdiocese.

Mather said he was told years later on a follow-up call to the archdiocese that Petrusic had been transferred out of the country.

But the church members of St. Bernard are not passing judgment on Petrusic.

"I don't know what happened or didn't happen," Joe said. "But, personally, we can't lose people like that."

Added Richemond: "A lot of people are losing their faith, but I'm not. No one is perfect."

Contact: nmcneal@herald.com

 
 

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