|Concerns about Ex-Priest's Behavior at Sacred Heart Stressed
Three Church Workers and the Rev. Williams Testify in Sex Abuse Civil Trial against Diocese
By Terrie Morgan-Besecker
November 7, 2007
SCRANTON – Her husband gravely ill, the mother of a 14-year-old boy befriended by the Rev. Albert Liberatore once told a friend that she hoped the priest would adopt the child should her husband die.
The mother believed Liberatore was "a gift from God" sent to help her and the child through the emotionally devastating time, Patricia Minora, the woman's friend, testified Tuesday.
But Minora, an employee at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, where Liberatore was pastor, said she was uneasy about the expensive gifts and attention Liberatore lavished on the youth. She warned a high-ranking official with the Diocese of Scranton that she suspected something wasn't right with the relationship.
Hers was the first of several "red flags" that were waved before diocesan officials that went unheeded, allowing Liberatore to sexually abuse the boy from 1999 to 2002, said Daniel Brier, an attorney representing the victim.
Minora was one of five witnesses to take the stand in the first day of a federal civil trial against Liberatore, the diocese, former Bishop James Timlin and the Rev. Joseph Kopacz.
The victim, now an adult, filed suit in 2004, shortly after Liberatore was charged with molesting him. Liberatore, who has since been removed from the priesthood, pleaded guilty in Luzerne County court in 2005 to several sexual assault charges and was sentenced to five years probation.
Identified only as John Doe in court papers, the victim's identity was revealed during court proceedings Tuesday. The Times Leader will not identify him because he is a victim of sexual abuse.
In a more-than two-hour opening statement, Brier detailed numerous incidents dating to 1997 that he said clearly indicated Liberatore had engaged in sexual misconduct with members of the same sex.
One of the most disturbing occurred, Brier said, when Liberatore was at the St. Pius X Seminary and had what some observers called a drunken lover's spat with another seminarian.
Brier said Timlin ignored the danger signs. Rather than remove Liberatore from the priesthood, he transferred him to Sacred Heart, where he met the youth, an altar boy.
But James O'Brien, attorney for the diocesan defendants, said the evidence will show none of the people who came forward specifically said they suspected sexual abuse was occurring. While its response was not perfect, the diocese "did what it could" based on the information it had, he said.
O'Brien noted the boy and his mother initially denied he had been sexually abused after the boy's friend came forward in 2003 to say he suspected the boy had been abused by a priest. The truth came out only after Timlin's retirement, when Auxiliary Bishop John Dougherty hired a private investigator to look into allegations against Liberatore.
Liberatore's attorneys, Lawrence Moran and Joseph Cosgrove, have filed court papers saying Liberatore does not intend to present a defense in the case. The attorneys did not ask any questions or make an opening statement. Liberatore left the courtroom after opening statements and did not return.
Tuesday's testimony centered on concerns about Liberatore's behavior that were raised by Minora, two other Sacred Heart of Jesus Church workers, Helen Negvesky and Ann Marie Zongilla, and the Rev. Ed Williams, who was temporarily assigned to the church.
Minora said the youth and his mother, a good friend of hers, were deeply involved with the Sacred Heart Church, particularly after the boy's father developed a terminal neurological disorder. The mother was in a "bad place emotionally" and relied heavily on Liberatore for spiritual and emotional support, she said.
The mother often spoke of how she felt Liberatore was "family," and told Minora she was thinking of asking him to adopt the boy if her husband died.
"That's how much she trusted him," Minora said.
Minora said she became suspicious of Liberatore in 2001 after he bought the youth an expensive watch. She was also concerned with the amount of time the boy spent at the rectory, including overnight stays, and that Liberatore had taken him on a trip to Europe and other overnight trips.
Her concerns eventually led her to call the Rev. Kopacz, a vicar who handled all personnel matters involving parish priests. Minora said Kopacz was alarmed by the details she relayed.
"He said to me, certainly there are orange flags, if not red flags going off," she said.
Negvesky, a secretary at the church, and Zongilla, a housekeeper at the rectory, testified they were also alarmed by the amount of time Liberatore spent with the boy, saying Liberatore appeared to be "obsessed" with him.
Each testified they were particularly concerned by one incident in which they witnessed a tickling match between Liberatore and the boy in which the youth put his hands in the belt line of Liberatore's pants.
Negvesky said she was concerned by the way Liberatore looked at the youth, saying it reminded her of how her husband looked at her before they were married.
The women said they reported their concerns to the Rev. Williams, who at the time was living in the church rectory with Liberatore.
Williams testified he, too, developed similar concerns based on the time the boy spent with Liberatore. He also said Liberatore would talk to him about the youth "like the way someone talks about their girlfriend."
All these concerns were eventually relayed to Kopacz in 2001.
In his opening, Brier said testimony will show that Kopacz left Timlin a voice mail regarding the allegations, but did not speak to him directly.
Timlin "hit the roof" after getting the message, Brier said, telling Liberatore "Gracious alive, how could you do such a thing?" Brier said. Despite that, Timlin took no action to remove Liberatore.
"Nothing stopped. Nothing changed. There was no call to police and (the boy) keeps sleeping in the rectory," Brier said.
Testimony will resume at 9:30 a.m. today in the federal courthouse in Scranton before U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo.
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