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  Priest Retreats to Life of Penance
Albany Banished from Ministry for Sexual Abuse, John Bertolucci Prays His Victims Find Healing

By Andrew Tilghman
Times Union [Albany, NY]
July 21, 2002

Twenty years ago, the Rev. John Patrick Bertolucci was a beloved author and televangelist preaching the power of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ on a nationally syndicated cable TV program.

And he harbored a secret: When he was a pastor in his thirties in the 1970s, he sexually abused teenagers. How many, he won't say.

Now at the age of 64, his crimes are widely known. He has been disgraced, told to stay at home, banned from serving as a priest in public and relegated to a life of "prayer and penance."

"I was deeply embarrassed," Bertolucci said in an interview from his home in Catskill. "And of course I was concerned about how people would react. ... I have a normal human pride, so the whole thing is disconcerting."

Bertolucci and five other priests from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany were named publicly and removed from active ministry last month because they had sexually abused minors in the past.

Across the country, hundreds of priests have been removed or resigned because of sexual abuse, but few had a ministry as far reaching as Bertolucci's. His books and broadcasts espousing the evangelical Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement resonated across the country and around the world.

"I am deeply loved by a lot of people," he said, mentioning the five or six letters and e-mails he gets each day from supporters, many of whom he has never met. As a result, he said, "my level of embarrassment and shame would be higher" than that of other parish priests.

Bertolucci, who was ordained in 1965, lives in the home left to him by his mother, who died this past November. Until several weeks ago, he regularly said Mass at St. Anthony's chapel in his hometown and mingled with local parishioners.

Now, he rarely leaves the house, praying and celebrating Mass alone and ministering to friends in private. "I am living almost as a quasi-monk. My house is my monastery," he said.

This spring, when he came to believe that a "zero tolerance" policy was inevitable, he requested an early retirement and received his first retirement check in June, he said.

On June 28, the day Bishop Howard J. Hubbard released the names of the six pedophile priests, Bertolucci retreated to a monastery in Massachusetts, staying in seclusion for eight days with only his pager and a stream of supportive voice mails linking him to the outside world.

While Bertolucci said he opted for a life of prayer and penance, the five other priests are considering whether to do the same or to voluntarily seek laicization, or formal removal from the priesthood, church officials said.

One priest, the Rev. James Rosch, who was removed from St. Joseph's in Fort Edward, has rented an apartment nearby and held an outdoor concert recently where he sang John Denver tunes to a crowd of his former parishioners.

Bertolucci said no one has criticized him to his face or singled him out for harassment since his history of sexual abuse was disclosed.

In his own words, Bertolucci is not, and never has been, a pedophile.

"My issue was with older persons, young adults. When you are dealing with children, with prepubescents, it's a whole other issue," Bertolucci said.

But one Albany County family, who asked that their names not be revealed, told the Times Union that Bertolucci abused their son when he was 12 years old, and he continues into his adulthood to blame his parents for allowing the abuse to happen.

"John Bertolucci didn't just hurt our son. He ripped apart our family," said the man's mother.

Bertolucci said he confessed his sexual abuse to other priests in the 1970s, but it remained confidential in accordance with church rules concerning confession.

"I would say in the 1970s, my struggle was — and this I only became aware of later on — my struggle was with what is called intimacy, the need to be close to somebody. It wasn't so much a sexual struggle as it was a struggle of how to keep appropriate friendships," he said.

Bertolucci said he has resolved his "struggle" and has not been sexually involved with a minor since then.

His abuse came to the attention of church officials in 1988, and he was sent to a residential treatment center for pedophiles in New Mexico, which he described as "a wonderful growth experience, psychologically and spiritually."

In the 1990s, he said he grew increasingly remorseful as scattered reports of sexual abuse by clergy began to appear in the press, and he decided to contact several of those whom he had abused decades earlier.

"I was moved on my own to reach out," he said. "With letters, phone calls and in two situations, a personal contact. It was embarrassing, but very healing."

Like many priests of his generation, Bertolucci was deeply influenced in his work by the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, which had a liberalizing effect on the church worldwide.

Bertolucci said clergy grew less "stand-offish" and priests came into much closer and more intimate contact with parishioners, through dinner-table discussions and salutary hugs and kisses that once had seemed inappropriate.

"One of the changes that occurred is that we could get closer to our people, and I would say in my case I wasn't prepared psychologically to watch out for the boundaries," Bertolucci said.

Bertolucci described his sexuality as "normal, but in the '70s, still developing with reference to friendship. I got too close to people inappropriately."

"My most profound concern is for anyone I have offended in any way, those who have been offended by this as well as those I offended in the '70s, my most profound concern is that they find healing," he said.

He closely followed televised coverage of the Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Dallas in June, where Hubbard spoke forcefully in favor of a more lenient policy than the zero-tolerance rule that was adopted.

"My preference would have been going in the direction of what was called the Hubbard amendment," Bertolucci said, "but when they didn't, I knew it was going to be a tough road ahead.

"I believe the bishops felt they had to take a most radical stand to bring back the credibility of the church, and for the common good I do accept that. What they did was acceptable because it is important that the church be respected, and I deeply regret having anything to do with that lack of credibility," he said.

In several cases elsewhere in the country, priests have committed suicide after disclosures about their sexual abuse, and Bertolucci has had to reassure some close friends not to worry about that in his case.

"I can almost feel when people are talking to me, they are thinking, 'You wouldn't do a crazy thing like that, would you?' " he said. "I have a deep spirituality and a wonderful bishop, and that has made it easier."

 
 

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