Convicted Predator “visiting” Na Home Not on Sex Offender Registry

By Celeste Regal
The Observer

October 2, 2008

Loophole in Maryland law keeps the ex-priest off the state police Web site

David Fortwengler is a man on a mission. He traveled by car from his home in Gaffney, South Carolina on Saturday, Sept. 6 and stayed at a motel in Clifton until Monday, Sept. 8. His quest – to let the residents in North Arlington, especially those on Ilford Avenue, know that defrocked priest Robert Joseph Petrella, the convicted predator who raped him when he was a 11-year-old altar boy, was living in their midst incognito.

TO ?FIND A?PREDATOR – David Fortwengler was a rape victim of Robert Joseph Petrella when he was an altar boy and now keeps tabs on places he resides. Because of a loophole in Maryland sex offender registry laws, Petrella does not have to register in any state he resides in.

Petrella, 70, is reported to be staying with his mother Josephine at 106 Ilford Avenue where he grew up. A relative at the residence named Joe said Petrella “only visits.”

Petrella is not registered as a sex offender in this state or any other he has lived in. The problem is that in Maryland where he was convicted any sex offenders convicted of offenses before Sept. 1995 when the sex offender registry was created, and those convicted after that date but for crimes committed before the 1995 cutoff date were off the registry hook.

When he contacted me, Fortwengler, who is now 51-years old, said he didn’t want to be seen as “one of those old priest abuse victims who can’t get over it and can’t move on.”

After I got to know the earnest, quiet contractor/real estate agent, I found at the core of his desire to keep track of Petrella is that as a child he was not able to speak about the abominable crime.

When he finally did in March of 2002, the surprising amount of victims who came forward shook him up and a sense of guilt fueled the motivation to make matters right.

“If I had spoken up then, a lot of young boys wouldn’t have gone through the same thing I did,” Fortwengler said. “I don’t want another boy to suffer that fate.”

Petrella was convicted four times for unnatural and perverted sex practices against children in Prince George’s County, which is just a hop, skip and a jump from Washington, D.C. He was ordained in 1966 and according to reports started molesting boys almost immediately.

His former employer, the Archdiocese of Washington tallied up at least 25 known victims, reports said. He was also indicted in 1997, while in New Jersey, on another accusation of molesting a 10-year-old at St. Thomas Moore Parish in Prince George’s County, according to the Catholic Standard. He was alleged to have molested the youth for over a year in 1977/1978.

The article also stated that Petrella was accused but not convicted of abuse in 1966. He was evaluated and treated at the Servants of the Paraclete in St. Louis, Missouri and then sent back into ministry. When other allegations surfaced in 1969 and 1981, all the priest received was, once again, evaluation and treatment. He was sent to a residential treatment center in 1989 after even more allegations of abuse. It was then that he was stripped of his “priestly faculties,” the article said.

“He was sent for treatment four different times and every time put back in ministry and then in ’89 they fired him – they didn’t call the cops or any other kind of thing,” Fortwengler said.

After the 2003 convictions and prior to the sentencing, a “D.C. Cardinal jumps on a plane, flies over to Rome and get expedited papers” so that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and then Pope John Paul II could defrock Petrella a month before his sentence hearing.

“He’s the most prolific abuser in the Archdiocese of Washington. He’s been convicted four times in Maryland, including my case in 2003 where two other victims came forward,” he said.

Fortwengler first went to the archdiocese of Charlotte, North Carolina to report the abuse.

“It’s unbelievable – I marched into a church that morning and I thought the priest was going to pull out a form to fill out but he said he had to call up the chain of command – then I got a call two days later from the police who received a call from the lawyer for the Archdiocese of Washington,” Fortwengler said. “When I got talking with the detective, I knew something was up, because when I said I didn’t know if Petrella was still alive or not, the detective said, ‘I don’t investigate dead people.’”

Petrella was living in Pennsylvania at the time of his arrest. The people in that neighborhood did not know that he had been convicted in 1998 for the offense from 1978.

The contractor said that he was concerned that Petrella be registered as a sex offender but the Maryland loophole, included in Megan’s law did not require him to do so. As is his right as a victim, Fortwengler was notified that the ex-priest was to be released on April 17, 2004. Petrella was to have three years supervised probation and Fortwengler was notified that that occurred on April 17, 2007. Both times notification came from the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Petrella was originally sentenced to 18 months but he served only nine months. That would be disturbing to most people and it was for the three victims in the 2003 case but they felt that actually getting a conviction was such a rarity; they were at least partially vindicated.

“At the time in 2003, that’s when you were reading about all the court cases in Boston and it’s all about the money, yet you weren’t reading any stories about these priests getting convicted. Maryland is one of the only states where there is no statute of limitations on felonies,” he said. “Even the prosecutor said we’ve done something no one else has been able to accomplish – you’ve exposed a serial predator.”

Now there’s a law that was defeated once but is coming up again in January that would close that loophole and Petrella would have to be registered. Maryland State Delegate Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican, hopes to fill in the sex offender registry gap with an amended Megan’s law. Fortwengler said he will testify at that time.

“I know more about child sex abuse that I ever planned on knowing. Anybody who should be registered that the community should know about it’s this guy,” he said.

Fortwengler said that with the conviction he was grateful to see that Petrella was finally identified and partially held accountable. But on the other hand 18 months hardly seemed enough time in prison for the harm and heartache caused by his unwelcome actions towards adolescents.

“I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said forgive and forget but what works best for me is not forgetting about it, not pretending it didn’t happen after 35 years,” he said. “Getting over it is through trying to change these laws and notifying the community that this guy is out there.”

At this point all Fortwengler knows is that Petrella spends his time between Maryland and New Jersey, and that his mother, Josephine may not even know he’s no longer a priest.

“I don’t want to hurt that woman but Petrella’s the one that caused it not me,” he said.

Fortwengler went to the Ilford Avenue neighborhood and passed around flyers on Sunday, Sept. 7. Surprisingly some of the neighbors already had suspicions about the recent resident. One resident came out with a bottle of cold water for him since it was a scorcher that day.

“It was really neat. I probably had four or five conversations with different neighbors. Some who didn’t know were very grateful to have the information and certainly were outraged,” he said. “Some said the rumors had been going around the neighborhood and he had denied and said it was ‘no big deal.’”

Frances Duggan, who lives next to the Petrella home, said she “took a serious dislike to him since they were kids.”

“It’s appalling that he’s not registered,” she said.


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