Priest Sent to Prison for Raping 2 Boys
The Once Popular Assistant Pastor at a Cranston Church Has Been the Focus of Sex Abuse Allegations since 1992

By Zachary R. Mider
Providence Journal
September 7, 2005

PROVIDENCE -- A Roman Catholic priest yesterday drew three years in prison for raping two altar boys at a Cranston church, marking the first time in 19 years that a priest of the Diocese of Providence has been sent to prison for sex abuse.

Under a plea deal, the Rev. Daniel M. Azzarone Jr. pleaded no contest to two counts of first-degree sexual assault, admitting he coerced the boys, then 16, to have sex with him at the rectory of St. Mary Church.

Both accusers addressed the priest in court yesterday, describing how his betrayal spawned other troubles: drug abuse, family problems, a badly shaken faith.

"I do not see how you can go on, knowing what you've done to me," said one of the accusers, now 20 and a college student.

Once a popular assistant pastor at St. Mary's known for his theatrical Masses, Father Azzarone, 54, had nothing to say in settling the nearly four-year-old criminal case.

"Thank you, your honor," he said to Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Procaccini, turning away from the bench and presenting his hands for a deputy sheriff's handcuffs.

Father Azzarone was placed on leave from the diocese after his arrest in November 2001, forbidden from acting as a priest in any forum, said Monsignor Paul D. Theroux, a diocesan spokesman on abuse cases. Now that the criminal case is resolved, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin will make "a further determination" about the priest's fate, Monsignor Theroux said.

The Cranston police opened an investigation when they heard that one of the boys had been mistreated by Father Azzarone. After initially denying it, the boy acknowledged the assault days later. The priest was arrested that night.

The boy provided the police with names of other boys who might have been abused. That led them to the second accuser, and more charges.

Now 20 and starting a computer-repair business, the first accuser told the court how Father Azzarone had cast a dark shadow over his life. Relationships with girlfriends ended badly. He began abusing the drugs that Father Azzarone showed him how to use.

"I also lost the ability to trust. What he's done to me -- I don't know how to trust anyone," he said. "Everyone says the teenage years of your life are supposed to be the most fun. I lost those years."

The abuse also created tension in his family, the accuser said. "Everyone suffers for what this man did. That's not right."

His eyes watered and he took a few heaving breaths. Then he sat down.

"I can't say no more."

Abuse allegations dogged Father Azzarone well before he committed the crimes that sent him to prison. In 1992, a 30-year-old man claimed to have been abused by the priest years earlier, when he was at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Providence. But the accuser died shortly thereafter.

In the late 1990s, Elizabeth Leighton told diocese officials that her son, Donald, had been abused decades earlier by Father Azzarone, when he was at St. Clement Church in Warwick. The police investigated but did not press charges.

"While this brings the legal proceedings to an end, the process of healing deep wounds that remain must continue," Bishop Tobin said in a statement. "This has been a difficult situation for all the parties involved. I offer my prayers for all who have suffered the pain of such abuse and renew my commitment to do everything I can to protect young people from such harm."

Assistant Attorney General J. Patrick Youngs III said yesterday's plea bargain had no bearing on any civil actions involving Father Azzarone. Monsignor Theroux said the diocese is in talks with Leighton and he is unaware of any other civil claims.

Youngs called the two accusers who spoke yesterday "heroes."

"They came forward to describe being victimized by a Catholic priest," he said after the court hearing. "Not only them, but their families are heroes."

Both victims had reached the age of consent in Rhode Island, meaning Youngs would have had to prove that the sex was not consensual.

Jury selection was scheduled to begin yesterday if Father Azzarone did not accept the plea bargain offered him: a 10-year sentence, with 7 suspended and on probation. He will be required to undergo sex-offender counseling and to register as a sex offender upon his release.

Five other criminal counts, of first- and second-degree sexual assault of the two boys, were dropped in the plea deal.

The last priest in the diocese to serve time for sex abuse, the Rev. William C. O'Connell, a former pastor at St. Mary Church in Bristol, pleaded no contest in 1986 to 26 counts of sexual contact with three teenage boys. He was given one year to serve.