The Shame of the Diocese
Allegations? Move Father Caparelli. More Allegations? Move Father Caparelli. Convictions? Keep Quiet

By Dave Janoski
Times Leader
July 9, 2006

[See other articles in this feature:
- The Sins of Our Fathers, by Dave Janoski, Times Leader (7/9/06)
- Priests Feel Hurt, Angry, Guilty by Association: When Scandal Breaks, Say Innocent Pastors, They and Flock Get Caught in Turmoil, by Mary Therese Biebel, Times Leader (7/9/06)
- Bill Aims to Loosen Limits on Suits: Statutes of Limitations on Sex-Abuse Cases Often Leave Victims with No Options, by Dave Janoski, Times Leader (7/9/06)
- Crimes and Accusations, Times Leader (7/9/06) [summaries, assignments, and photos of accused priests]
- A Church Re-Educates Itself: Changing Attitudes: The Catholic Church Has Mandated Special Training to Recognize Sexual Abuse and Abusers, by Mark Guydish, Times Leader (7/9/06)
- Morning Note from the Newsroom: the Church Series, by Matt Golas, Times Leader (7/11/06).]

The Scranton Diocese had fair warning about Father Robert Caparelli.

Twice in his 27 years as an active priest, police officers had alerted Caparelli's superiors to allegations that he molested boys.

But except for a monthlong stay in a Catholic rest home, where he was interviewed by a psychologist and psychiatrist, it appears the diocese did little beyond moving Caparelli from assignment to assignment until he was arrested on child-abuse charges in 1991.

After allegations of sex abuse over three decades, Robert Caparelli pleaded guilty in the '90s in two cases. From 1976 Bishop O'Reilly High School Yearbook.

Twelve years after his death, presumably because of AIDS, his transgressions continue to haunt the diocese in the form of a lawsuit filed by a man who claims Caparelli began abusing him at age 6.

James C. Timlin, bishop of Scranton from 1984 through 2003 and auxiliary bishop beginning in 1976, knew of allegations against Caparelli as early as 1968, when, as assistant chancellor, he helped handle a complaint against the priest.

A Hazleton police officer wrote the diocese that Caparelli had been "demoralizing" two brothers, ages 11 and 12, "in a manner that is not natural for any human that has all his proper faculties."

Timlin replied to the officer's letter, promising an investigation. Two months later, Caparelli was assigned to another church in Old Forge, where he would allegedly molest several boys.

Timlin, now bishop emeritus, and other diocesan officials declined to be interviewed about Caparelli.

But court papers and legal exhibits including Caparelli's diocesan file, an inch-thick collection of letters, records and reviews compiled during his priesthood document his crimes.

They also establish what Caparelli's superiors knew and when they knew it.

A humble beginning

Robert N. Caparelli was born in Jessup, Lackawanna County, in 1938.

His coal-miner father, Nello, had lived in Italy until age 18 and never learned much English.

His mother, Jennie, was born in Jessup and worked in a garment factory.

In interviews with therapists after his arrest in 1991, Caparelli described his mother as a "rageaholic" who dominated and controlled the household and instilled fear in her four children. They coped by being "overly nice" and avoiding anything that might trigger her temper, he told therapists.

From the outside, the family appeared "kind, honest and deeply religious," according to Father Mark A. Mecca, whose rectory was adjacent to the Caparelli home. In recommending Caparelli as a seminarian to Bishop Jerome D. Hannan in 1958, Mecca wrote:

"His character is excellent, his reputation the best, his piety well founded."

Caparelli's younger brother, Andrew, recalled his family's pride at having a prospective priest in the family:

"Years ago, that was a big thing."

But some of his brothers' peers were surprised by the decision.

"From what people have told me, they found it hard to believe," Andrew Caparelli said. "He was outgoing in high school. He went to dances."

"Fortunately Mom didn't know anything about all this. If she had known
anything about it, it would have killed her."

Andrew Caparelli
Father Robert Caparelli's brother

Robert Caparelli remembered high school as a particularly happy time, full of sports and dating and a new independence, he told his therapists.

But Caparelli also felt the tug of a religious vocation, attending Mass nearly every day and confession weekly, he told a priest who was his guidance counselor at the University of Scranton, according to a letter in his diocesan file.

Caparelli told the guidance counselor he'd been thinking about the priesthood since sixth grade.

He presumably didn't tell the priest of an incident around the same time his alleged sexual abuse at the hands of a "much older boy." The abuse, characterized as rape by therapists who worked with Caparelli after his arrest, continued for several years, he told them.

Caparelli would graduate from St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore in 1964. An unsigned letter on St. Mary's Seminary stationery in his diocesan file described Caparelli as "a good candidate for the priesthood."

"He is pious, sincere, earnest, quiet, respectful but his external appearance is a bit against him. He looks somewhat unhappy and does not smile often but he is solidly good."

Early signs

At the time of his ordination in May 1964, Caparelli was 26 years old. Trim at 5-foot-11 and about 150 pounds, he had a full head of wavy, brown hair.

After a three-month stint at Queen of Peace Church in Hawley, Caparelli was named assistant pastor at St. Francis Church in Nanticoke. There he impressed parishioners as "one of the most sincere, holy, charitable, humble and saintly men we have ever met," one family wrote to Bishop J. Carroll McCormick when Caparelli was reassigned after three years.

"He has worked with teen-agers, visited the hospitals daily, counseled juvenile delinquents, in short where ever there was any need, there you would find Father Caparelli."

Caparelli's reassignment came at the request of his old pastor at St. Mary Assumption in Jessup, Father Mecca, who wrote the bishop asking that Caparelli join him at Most Precious Blood Church in Hazleton.

Caparelli had been at Most Precious Blood for nearly a year when Joseph R. Yamona, a church member and city police officer, wrote Bishop McCormick that Caparelli had "contributed to the delinquency" of two brothers, ages 11 and 12, "in a manner that is not natural for any human that has all his proper faculties." Yamona explained that the boys' mother, a nurse, had made them quit serving as altar boys, but was afraid to tell their father "for fear of repercussions that would be of a deadly nature."

Yamona wrote that he had information on "other situations" involving Caparelli, urged the bishop to "curb these situations before violence takes place" and offered to meet with the bishop.

There is no indication in Caparelli's diocesan file that such a meeting took place. A letter to Yamona from Assistant Chancellor Timlin, now bishop emeritus, thanked him and said the situation would be "investigated further."

Yamona, now retired and living in Hazleton, declined comment.

Caparelli, called to Scranton for a meeting with Bishop McCormick in September 1968, "admitted to acting too freely" with the two boys, according to handwritten notes signed by McCormick in Caparelli's diocesan file. But he denied he did "anything immoral."

Caparelli "claimed he was being misunderstood by the mother who suggested he see a doctor." Caparelli told the bishop he had seen a doctor, "who assured him he was not a homosexual."

Caparelli "begged" to continue his work as a priest and worried about his financial status. McCormick assured him his salary would continue.

Within six weeks, Caparelli would be serving as assistant pastor at St. Mary's Church in Old Forge.

A second chance

One week after his meeting with the bishop, Caparelli was ordered to report to Padua Retreat House in West Chester, where he was examined by a psychologist and psychiatrist.

An unsigned memo in his file says the "doctors noted that Father needed treatment" but they also "recommended that he be given a change and a chance."

It notes the boys' mother "may have exaggerated."

Another letter, from Father Francis P. O'Reilly of the retreat house, says "it was decided that he should be given another appointment and the pastor should watch out for any suspicious situations."

But the psychologist who interviewed Caparelli, Daniel J. Ziegler, recommended in his report that the diocese re-examine the accusations, which were denied by Caparelli.

"If there is solid evidence, then Fr. Caparelli is in need of immediate psychiatric or psychological help."

If Caparelli had molested the boys, Ziegler wrote, "without therapeutic help, he would be likely to commit these actions again." Ziegler, now retired, did not return phone messages seeking comment.

There is no reference in Caparelli's file to continuing therapy nor any indication that anyone at his new parish in Old Forge was informed of his history. A letter from Bishop McCormick to Caparelli announcing his new assignment cautioned him to "let the pastor know of your whereabouts at all times."

Within a year, Caparelli was molesting the 6-year-old son of a family that belonged to St. Mary's, according to a lawsuit filed last year in U.S. District Court in Scranton.

The plaintiff in that suit, David Irvin, a 20-year Navy veteran who is now 43, lived near Caparelli's parents' home in Lakeville at the time. During the next several years, Caparelli often took Irvin on unsupervised visits to his parents' home, where he "sexually fondled, molested and battered the boy," according to the suit.

Caparelli intimidated, coerced and frightened the boy to keep silent about the abuse and told him "he was a priest and that's what priests were allowed to do," the suit alleged.

Irvin declined to be interviewed for this story.

Two years into his stay at St. Mary's, Bishop McCormick gave Caparelli a new part-time assignment, director of religious formation at West Scranton Central Catholic High School.

Another accusation

While Caparelli's alleged abuse of Irvin was apparently not reported to his superiors, other allegations were.

A state trooper approached St. Mary's pastor, Father William Giroux, in 1974, reporting that he had been told Caparelli had been touching the genitals of several boys, according to a letter dated April 6, 1992, in Caparelli's diocesan file.

Frank Anzelmi, who described himself in the letter as a retired captain in the state police, wrote that Giroux called Caparelli down to the pastor's office and Caparelli confessed.

Anzelmi wrote that he told Giroux no one wanted to press charges, but that Caparelli's conduct had to change.

"Giroux said he would take care of it. Caparelli was transferred within the year."

The letter does not indicate if Giroux told anyone else of the meeting with Anzelmi, who could not be reached for comment before his death on May 22.

A state law that requires police officers, clergy, physicians and other professionals to report suspected child abuse to child protection agencies was not enacted until 1975 and so would not have applied in the 1974 Old Forge case or the 1968 case involving Caparelli.

Except for Anzelmi's letter, dated 18 years after the fact, Caparelli's diocesan file contains no mention of the 1974 allegations against him at St. Mary's.

It does, however, include a June 11, 1974, letter from Bishop McCormick reassigning him to Bishop O'Reilly High School as director of religious formation.

Devastating charges

Caparelli's seven years at Bishop O'Reilly he was also chaplain at Mercy Center in Dallas produced no lawsuits and there is no indication in his diocesan file of abuse allegations during those years.

But his next assignment pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church near Milford in Pike County at the eastern edge of the diocese would produce the most detailed and devastating charges.

In November 1991, a 19-year-old college student and military reservist named Mark Thomas Johnson told state police Caparelli had molested him at least a dozen times, beginning in 1985, when he was 13.

Johnson had been urged by his family to become an altar boy at St. Vincent when they moved to Pike County from Long Island, N.Y., in 1984, he testified at a preliminary hearing in December 1991.

Johnson and his older brother did odd jobs at the church rectory for Caparelli, who would often take them to movies.

In September 1985, Caparelli took Johnson along on a trip to East Stroudsburg and on the way home "he asked me if I wanted to come over and steer the car."

The priest began fondling Johnson and undid the boy's pants. They pulled to the side of the road, where the masturbation continued.

"I didn't know how to feel. I didn't know what was happening," Johnson testified. "I was very young, didn't know anything about sex and I was numb."

During the next 21 months, Caparelli molested Johnson in his car and in the rectory, once guiding Johnson to sodomize him.

Johnson testified he was too scared and embarrassed to tell anyone at the time. But after graduating high school, he discussed the incident with a girlfriend and relatives, which led to counseling and, eventually, his statement to police.

A week after Johnson's testimony, he and his parents filed suit against Caparelli, St. Vincent de Paul and the diocese, revealing that in 1984, the priest had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That diagnosis was acknowledged in a legal document filed by Caparelli's attorney in the criminal case against him.

Shortly before his arrest, the diocese sent Caparelli to St. Luke Institute a private Roman Catholic facility in Maryland that treats priests and members of religious orders for substance abuse and psychological problems.

Letters to diocesan officials from the institute say Caparelli had acknowledged during his six-month stay that he was a "sex addict" and revealed that he had been raped as a child. In his interviews with psychologist Ziegler in 1968, Caparelli had characterized that alleged rape as merely an "attempted seduction."

But Caparelli wasn't entirely forthcoming. The St. Luke report to the diocese notes the 1968 Hazleton allegations, but contains no indication that Caparelli told therapists about his alleged abuse of 6-year-old David Irvin in 1969 or about the allegations made by state police Capt. Anzelmi in 1974.

And it doesn't mention another St. Vincent de Paul altar boy, who would come forward with new charges in 1993. By that time, Caparelli was already serving a two-to-five-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in the Johnson case.

Michael John Rohan told police Caparelli had shown him pictures of naked women and then had the boy sodomize him in the St. Vincent rectory during Holy Week 1987. Rohan was 10.

Caparelli told the boy "not to tell anyone about the incident or he would go to hell," according to an arrest affidavit.

For several months, Caparelli attempted to grope the boy when they were alone in the room where altar boys changed their vestments before and after Mass, the affidavit said. And during Advent 1989, while hearing Rohan's confession, Caparelli asked the boy to sit on his lap and attempted to grab his crotch.

"The victim got scared and ran out and told his mother that he wasn't going to go to church again," the affidavit said.

Caparelli pleaded guilty in the Rohan case too, adding 17 1/2 months to six years to his prison term.

Rohan's family, like Johnson's, filed a civil suit against Caparelli, St. Vincent de Paul and the diocese. Both suits were settled by the diocese for a total of about $225,000 in May 1996, according to attorney James E. O'Brien Jr., who represented the diocese. Johnson and Rohan could not be reached for comment.

Final years

Caparelli spent the last 2 1/2 years of his life in state prison. His father, Nello, was long dead. His mother, Jennie, was living in a nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer's. She died in 1999.

"Fortunately Mom didn't know anything about all this," Caparelli's brother, Andrew, said. "If she had known anything about it, it would have killed her."

Andrew Caparelli said his brother never talked much about the charges against him. During one court hearing, the accused priest turned to his brother and said:

"It's not as bad as they're making it sound."

"I don't know really what that meant," Andrew Caparelli said. "But things happen. Everybody has something in their closets.

"Nobody picked up on Bob what was different about him."

Robert Caparelli died on Christmas Eve 1994 in Marion Community Hospital in Carbondale.

Last December, the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Light, included him in a list of priests who had died during that month over the years. The caption read:

"Remember in your prayers those who have labored in your diocese."

Associate Editor/Investigative Dave Janoski can be reached at 829-7255.


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