Priest Admits Guilt in Abuse

By Rita Ciolli
February 5, 2003

Michael Hands, the Roman Catholic priest who is the key cooperating witness in the Suffolk County grand jury investigation of sexual abuse cases in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, admitted in a Riverhead courtroom yesterday that he had sodomized a 14-year-old boy two years ago.

Hands, his face pale as he nervously rocked back and forth before County Court Judge Stephen Braslow, responded in a clear voice when the two felony charges were read. "That is correct - guilty, your honor," he said. The priest admitted wrongdoing under an agreement that will net him a sentence of 2 years in jail in Yaphank followed by 5 years' probation under the jurisdiction of Nassau County.

Hands, 36, provided scant detail about the offenses. Under questioning by Assistant District Attorney James Cudden, Hands said the oral sex took place from November 1999 to January 2001 in a community on Suffolk's South Shore.

Once a rising star in the diocese, Hands is voluntarily asking the Vatican to remove him permanently from ministry. Ordained in 1993, he has served at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in West Islip, St. Philip Neri in Northport and was assigned to St. Raphael in East Meadow at the time of his arrest in May 2001.

When Braslow asked him for his current address yesterday, he replied, "here, the jail."

Hands has been in custody since early January for violating his cooperation agreement with prosecutors by contacting a friend of the victim's family and seeking out men in an online gay chat room. Yesterday, Hands signed an order of protection barring him from ever contacting the victim or his family. Sentencing is scheduled for March 4.

In Nassau County, Hands already has pleaded guilty to five counts of sodomy and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, charges that stemmed from him having sex with the same underage teen. Sentencing in that case is set for March 12. According to a spokesman, Nassau District Attorney Denis Dillon has not yet determined whether his office will make a sentencing recommendation. Defense attorney Peter Rubin, however, said Nassau County Court Judge Donald DeRiggi is likely to impose a sentence of 6 months jail and 5 years' probation that would run concurrently with the 2-year sentence in Suffolk.

Rubin said Hands is getting psychiatric treatment and hopes to be able to teach or use his educational and ministry skills while serving his term.

Resolving the criminal cases will allow Hands "to exorcise the demons which appear to have possessed him," Rubin said. Rubin acknowledged, however, that his client still may not understand why having sex with males younger than 17 is not condoned by society. "He knows he has done something wrong, he has accepted that he has done something wrong but the behavior, sometimes, he doesn't think is wrong," Rubin said.

The diocese released a written statement about Hands yesterday. "The sexual abuse of a child or teenager is a horrendous crime. We continue to pray for this victim and for all victims, their families and loved ones who have been harmed by sexual abuse. At the same time, we also offer our prayers for Father Hands himself."

In accepting the plea, Braslow pointed out that the family of the abused teen was in agreement with the deal. Michael Dowd, an attorney for the victim's family, said avoiding the need for their son to testify at trial was an important factor in their support.

"Still, they are clearly disturbed that his attraction to young males seems unabated," Dowd said yesterday in a telephone interview. Although Hands will cooperate with the family in a likely civil suit against the diocese, Dowd said yesterday that the priest was guilty of "a monstrous betrayal of family trust."

During the proceeding yesterday, District Attorney Thomas Spota sat in the rear of the Riverhead courtroom and said nothing. Amid a crush of cameras in the corridor afterward, Spota said Hands' sentence was fair because he gave "material assistance in connection with a serious and important investigation." Spota said Hands' testimony was "truthful and has been corroborated."

Rubin gave Hands' role even more significance, saying that by cooperating, "he opened up the flow, by his coming forward the diocese released all their records because they didn't know what he was saying."

For more than two years, Hands has insisted that his illegal behavior stemmed from his alleged molestation as a teen by the Rev. Charles Ribaudo, then the chaplain at Holy Trinity High School in Oyster Bay. Ribaudo and his supporters have strongly denied the charges but the allegations led Bishop William Murphy to suspend Ribaudo's privileges as a priest and remove him as pastor of St. Dominic parish in Oyster Bay.

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