Ex-Antioch Priest Held in Florida

By Kristi Belcamino
Contra Costa Times
February 27, 2003

A former Antioch priest accused of sexually abusing altar boys in the 1970s and 1980s was picked up by authorities at his Florida retirement home Wednesday morning on six felony counts of molestation.

Authorities in Florida are holding 66-year-old Robert Ponciroli while he awaits extradition to California where he will be held in County Jail in lieu of $600,000 bail, said Antioch police Sgt. Scott Willerford.

Last March, a 31-year-old man told Antioch police that Ponciroli had molested him from 1979 to 1981 while he was an altar boy at St. Ignatius Church.

According to court records, the man said the priest abused him while he was doing yardwork for Ponciroli on weekends and once in the priest's car during a ride home.

In May 2002, a 40-year-old former altar boy told Oakland police that the priest had molested him between 1973 and 1974 at Oakland's St. Frances de Sales Cathedral.

During their investigation, Antioch police talked to several other alleged victims who had told of similar incidents with Ponciroli, Willerford said. However, none of the other allegations met the criteria for filing formal charges against Ponciroli, he said.

Last August, the 31-year-old man filed a lawsuit against Ponciroli claiming he suffered psychological and physical damage from the alleged abuse.

The lawsuit alleges that church officials knew or at least should have known about the priest's "dangerous and exploitative propensities."

At the time of the lawsuit, Sister Barbara Flannery, chancellor of the Oakland Diocese, said in an interview that when the 31-year-old told her about the abuse in March 2002, she immediately called police.

She also acknowledged that church officials became aware of another allegation of sexual abuse involving Ponciroli during his time at Richmond's St. Cornelius Catholic Church in 1975.

The diocese did not conduct its own investigation of Ponciroli. He was stripped of his duties in 1995 and underwent therapy.

"We've already made our judgment and removed Robert Ponciroli," Flannery said last fall.

The 31-year-old's attorney, Laurence Drivon of Stockton has claimed the diocese had already settled two complaints surrounding allegations connected to the priest.

Information contained in Ponciroli's personnel file with the diocese corroborates the altar boy's claims, according to court records.

The charges against Ponciroli could be affected by the outcome of a similar decades-old molestation allegation from Contra Costa County. That case will be argued next month before the U.S. Supreme Court, which will decide whether allowing criminal charges years after the alleged offenses is constitutional.

Between 1969 and his removal in 1995, Ponciroli was assigned as a priest in eight churches, including parishes in Antioch, Oakland, Richmond, Brentwood, Byron, San Leandro and Castro Valley.

Ponciroli moved to Hernando County, Florida, in 2000.

Police ask anyone with information to call Detective Mary Hooker at 925-779-6895 or Sgt. Scott Willerford at 925-779-6928.


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