Priest Investigated on Sex Abuse Claim
The Rev. Arko, Charged with Growing Marijuana in Church Rectory, Accused of Molesting Teen Boy
By Phil Trexler
Akron Beacon Journal [Ohio]
February 11, 2004
A Norton priest accused of growing marijuana in a church house is being investigated on a claim he molested a teen-age boy over several years, a prosecutor said Tuesday.
The allegation surfaced publicly during a court appearance by Andrew J. Smith, a 25-year-old Barberton man who tipped police last month to the marijuana plants allegedly being grown by the Rev. Richard Arko, 40, inside the rectory of Prince of Peace Catholic Church.
Smith, in court Tuesday for violating his probation in an unrelated case, claims Arko began a sexual relationship with him when he was 15.
He told his attorney that the relationship continued through January, when the priest posted Smith's bond after his arrest on charges stemming from a theft at Prince of Peace, where Arko served as pastor.
Over the years, Smith said in court, Arko showered him with gifts, money and drugs in exchange for sex.
"He, you know, he was molesting me since the age I was 15," Smith said. "I was using drugs to forget about the incidents that happened to me since I was 15.
"This man bought me a house — I never had a chance to do anything on my own — He bought me groceries. He supplied me with food, everything that I needed."
Smith's credibility is apparently an issue in the Norton police investigation. He has a long history of drug abuse and is under a 10-count indictment on charges of forgery and receiving stolen property.
The charges stem from the theft of checks and a credit card from the Prince of Peace rectory where the priest is accused of growing marijuana.
The credit card belonged to Arko, and the checks were owned by the church.
Smith was sentenced to six months in jail Tuesday for violating his probation stemming from a 2003 theft case.
Arko could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Don Varian, said he was aware of Smith's involvement in the case as an informant, but he declined comment on the molestation allegation.
Summit County Assistant Prosecutor Mary Ann Kovach said Tuesday that she is in the process of scheduling a meeting with Norton police detectives to determine if sex charges should be brought against Arko.
Norton Detective Thad Hete is leading the investigation. He could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
A spokesman for the Cleveland Diocese said the church was unaware of the allegation being made by Smith.
Spokesman Robert Tayek, however, said if a complaint is lodged, either by Smith, police or prosecutors, an investigation would ensue to determine if the molestation allegation is credible.
Arko was suspended and removed from the church after his arrest last month on felony charges of cultivating marijuana. He continues to lead yoga classes at St. Mary's Church in Barberton.
Norton police, based largely on Smith's tip, raided the Prince of Peace rectory and recovered 35 marijuana plants of various sizes along with the equipment used to grow the drug.
A man living at the rectory, Jensen Powell, 24, is accused of selling $15 of marijuana a day before the raid to a second informant who came to the church house while working undercover for police. Powell had $1,100 in his pocket when he was arrested.
Smith appeared before Common Pleas Judge James Murphy on Tuesday for sentencing on a probation violation for a 2003 theft conviction. His probation was revoked after he repeatedly tested positive for marijuana and missed several appointments with his probation officer.
In seeking leniency from the judge, Smith's attorney, James Gatskie, claimed Smith was under Arko's control since age 15.
Gatskie told Murphy that Arko had "enabled (Smith's) drug purchases and kept Andy in a dependent relationship."
Smith told the judge he is preparing to testify for the prosecution in its case against Arko.
"He was the victim of a person in this community who pretty much arrested his social and educational development, your honor, through certain machinations," Gatskie said in court.
Smith and Arko met when Arko was a priest at St. Mary's and Smith, a neighborhood kid, was hired to shovel snow, Gatskie said.
Smith told the judge that Arko supplied him with a house, groceries and drugs. He told Gatskie that Arko took him on vacation, gave him expensive cologne, clothing and at least 10 cars through the years.
Smith has also lived at the rectory with Arko from time to time. Smith is married and has three children, all under age 6. He and his family live in a home owned by Arko, Gatskie said and property records show.
Gatskie said he is confident Smith is not lying about the sexual relationship.
He said Smith is willing to take a polygraph.
"I don't think anybody who talks to Andy can come to any other conclusion than this young man was preyed upon since he was 15 years old," Gatskie said after the hearing.
"He was Arko's dependent. Andy didn't turn on him when he talked to the cops. No, he finally realized he's been a victim and he wants to stop being victimized."
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