Haunted by Carol Ann Dougherty's Murder

Bucks County Courier Times
October 4, 2005

The sexual abuse Joan McCrane endured from Father Joseph Sabadish began, she said, innocently. "Tickling," she said. "He'd put his hands on my shoulders. Then, on my chest. Then, down my pants." It was 1960. She was 7.

Sabadish, in his early 40s at the time, was a priest stationed at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Levittown, where McCrane attended grade school.

"He told me that it was our secret and that I was never to tell anyone or we'd both go to Hell. I never said anything because I was a little girl and I was scared to death," she recalled.

Her younger brother, Bill Nelis, said Sabadish molested him, too, beginning when he was 10. The abuse ended when he hit puberty.

"Sabadish said this is how he showed his love for me," Nelis recalled, his voice curdling into disgust. "He'd always give me candy. The glove compartment of his car was always filled with it. He'd tell me candy fairies had put it there."

Their account was deemed credible by Philadelphia police investigators. Last August, McCrane testified before a Philadelphia grand jury investigating the sexual abuse of minors at the hands of Catholic priests in the archdiocese over the last 50 years.

Nelis, who no longer lives in the area, was permitted to submit a written statement that was read into the testimony.

"I hated the guy, I was afraid of him," Nelis said of Sabadish. "He didn't like kids. He'd slap you around, call you stupid. You never knew what would set him off."

For Joan McCrane, the story of Joseph Sabadish isn't over. She is absorbed with the case of Carol Ann Dougherty, 9, who was raped and murdered in St. Mark Church in Bristol on Oct. 22, 1962.

Sabadish became a suspect because he couldn't provide an alibi for where he was at the time of the murder. He was questioned, but never charged.

Police looked for other suspects after he passed a polygraph. He died in 1999 at 80 in his hometown, Branch Dale, Schuylkill County.

Carol's murder remains unsolved.

"Was it him? I don't know. But I believe we can find out," McCrane said last week as we chatted in her office.

Nearby is a photocopy of a Courier Times series on the Dougherty case, which she took from microfilm during research at the Grundy Library.

"I can relate to Carol Ann. She was murdered and the suspect was Father Sabadish. If she was being molested, I understand how she felt. If he killed her, then I could have easily been Carol Ann Dougherty, too. Why her and not me?"

McCrane knows the Courier Times series sparked a reinvestigation by the Bristol police in 1992 and 1993. She knows the investigation resulted in a new suspect, a man who was seen outside St. Mark's within minutes of the murder. She knows he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions put to him during a Bucks County grand jury investigation.

She also knows there is forensic evidence - three brown pubic hairs found in Carol's hand - presumed to have been from her killer.

Test them against Sabadish's DNA and it could prove his guilt - or innocence. Of course, to do that would require the unlikely move to exhume his remains.

"I know Father Sabadish can't defend himself against the charges that he molested me," she said. "But he can defend himself against this charge, that he killed this girl. I just need some help."

But from whom? She's not sure.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
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