New Abuse Is Alleged at Malvern Prep
Authorities Are Investigating a Student's Accusation of Sexual Misconduct against a Priest at the Chesco School
By Kathleen Brady Shea and Jonathan Gelb
January 15, 2003
West Chester - Chester County authorities are investigating a new allegation of sexual misconduct by a priest at the prestigious Malvern Preparatory School.
Another priest from the school is awaiting sentencing after his conviction last week on charges of sexually abusing a student in 1991.
District Attorney Joseph W. Carroll said yesterday that a former student recently contacted the private boys' school, which turned the information over to the District Attorney's Office on Dec. 20. Little is known about the student, who was 15 at the time of the alleged misconduct, in 1998.
In a letter to parents, Malvern's head of school, James H. Stewart, identified the priest as Father John Liggio. According to Malvern's Web site yesterday afternoon, Father Liggio taught theology at the school, which serves boys in grades six through 12. Later yesterday, the reference to the priest was removed from the site.
School officials had no comment on the investigation beyond the letter to parents and a brief written statement issued yesterday.
"Although no charges have been filed to date, Malvern had to follow its policy to immediately contact the authorities and to request Father Liggio take a temporary leave of absence while the authorities investigate this claim," said the letter, which was dated Jan. 9.
"Father Liggio has denied the allegations and has also offered his full cooperation," according to the letter. "As a community, we are devastated by the suggestion of improper conduct toward someone who is considered to be an important part of the Malvern family."
Carroll said the school received a letter on Dec. 19 in which the former student expressed a desire to meet with Stewart regarding a matter of some urgency. The letter did not identify the allegations or who was involved, Carroll said.
The school contacted the student, and learned about the allegations, Carroll said.
Carroll said the alleged incidents, which he described only as sexual misconduct, occurred from September 1997 to October 1998, when the boy was 15.
"The investigation is in the early stages," Carroll said. "I would estimate four to six weeks before all the interviews could be conducted."
Carroll said he believed that officials at the school, which occupies 103 acres on South Warren Avenue off Paoli Pike, had cooperated with investigators.
On Jan. 9, the Rev. Richard J. Cochrane, who taught religion at Malvern for 24 years, pleaded no contest to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student at a cabin in the Poconos in 1991. A sentencing date in Monroe County has not yet been set, but Father Cochrane could receive up to 10 years in prison.
According to police, Father Cochrane got the student drunk, then engaged in a sex act with him. Police say they have evidence that Father Cochrane did the same thing to a different student a year earlier, although charges in that case were not brought because the statute of limitations had lapsed.
"With the crimes that went on here, you'd think these other priests - instead of backing him up - would be out here talking to us," said Lt. Anthony Fluegel of the Pocono Mountains Regional Police, who was a lead detective on the Cochrane case. "Instead, they stuck together and backed each other up.
"There was not one priest from the order or the school that was willing to talk to us. They definitely circled the wagons."
Fluegel and the prosecutor in the case, Sherri A. Stephan, who no longer works in the Monroe County District Attorney's Office, said that law-enforcement officials were shocked when they were told not to attend a meeting with school alumni held shortly after Father Cochrane's arrest, Aug. 6, 1999. The purpose of the meeting was to allow alumni to pass on information or make complaints. A source close to the school said the Monroe investigators were not prohibited from attending the session, but were told they would not be allowed speak.
"I really had a hard time getting a feel for whether we were getting all the information [from the school]," Stephan said. "Anytime we tried to get information about other students, it never went anywhere."
Debbie Osborne, the mother of three sons - two of whom attend Malvern and one who graduated - said she was deeply saddened by the news.
"I have nothing but positive things to say about Father Liggio," she said. "I can't speak for anyone else, but he has truly lifted me and helped us spiritually and emotionally."
Osborne said she believed the school had done a good job of balancing families' right to receive information with Father Liggio's right to privacy.
"When someone makes an allegation, you have to stop, you have to listen, and you have to follow up," she said. "I just hope everyone comes out of it OK."
Founded by the Augustinian Order in 1842, Malvern Prep was reorganized as a separate, nonprofit corporation. It now has a contract with the Augustinians to provide faculty.
Like one-third of the nation's Roman Catholic priests, Augustinians are members of a religious order. They do not report to the Philadelphia archdiocese.
The Rev. Donald Reilly, who heads the East Coast Augustinians based in Villanova, said Father Liggio was undergoing psychological evaluation.
"He is maintaining his innocence," the Rev. Reilly said. "He's saddened. He's in disbelief. He's a wonderful man and a very good teacher. I feel badly for all persons involved."
The latest accusation at Malvern Prep comes amid an international wave of sexual-abise allegations aimed at Catholic priests. The allegations have led to the convictions of priests, the resignations of their supervising bishops - most notably Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston - and new policies within the church.
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