Charges Withdrawn against Ex-Priest

By Ed Palattella
Erie Times-News
March 18, 2008

MEADVILLE -- In an abrupt reversal, Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz today said he is withdrawing child-corruption charges that state police filed against a former Roman Catholic priest over incidents that occurred nearly 40 years ago.

Schultz said he misinterpreted the law regarding the statute of limitations in having state police file charges against Thomas E. Smith on Wednesday.

"I made a mistake in applying the statute of limitations in the case," Schultz said today.

His office had pursued charges against Smith, now 67, based on a 2006 Pennsylvania law that expanded the statute of limitations in child sex cases. The law previously limited the prosecution of sex crimes to the date when the victim turned 30. The new law extends the prosecution of sex crimes to the date when the victim turns 50.

Schultz on Monday told the Erie Times-News he believed the new law was retroactive, meaning it applied to incidents that occurred before the law went into effect.

He said he determined today that the law was not retroactive, and that the expanded statute of limitations applies only to incidents that occurred after the new law took effect.

Schultz said he had directed the Pennsylvania State Police to withdraw four counts of corruption of children, a misdemeanor, that police had filed against Smith at the office of Saegertown District Judge Lincoln Zilhaver.

Smith was removed from ministry in the Catholic Diocese of Erie in 2002 and removed from the priesthood in 2006. He now lives in the Oil City area.

His accuser, Clair Prenatt, 50, accused Smith of fondling him at a residence in the Meadville area between 1968 and 1970, when Prenatt was between 10 and 12 years old, according to the criminal complaint. Prenatt now lives in Virginia.

Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman today issued a statement in which he sharply criticized the Erie Times-News' coverage of the charges against Smith.

Trautman said the newspaper's treatment of the case, including the reporting on the changes in the state law, demonstrated "an egregious disregard for accuracy in journalistic research, and an alarming lapse in ethics." Trautman said the newspaper should have known that "criminal statutes of limitation cannot be retroactively extended to allow for the prosecution of offenses on which the statute has already lapsed."

Trautman in the statement did not comment on the charges against Smith.


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