Parishioners in a State of Shock over Arrest of Popular Priest

By Peter Cameron
The Times-Tribune
April 5, 2014

When Kay Vargo decided to marry her high school sweetheart, she asked the priest with whom she felt most connected to officiate the ceremony later this year: the Rev. Philip Altavilla.

So the revelation late Thursday that the priest had been arrested for giving alcohol to a 13-year-old and touching her inappropriately after a midnight Christmas Mass in 1998 at St. Patrick's Parish in Scranton hit Ms. Vargo particularly hard.

"I cried," said Ms. Vargo, 19, who first met the Rev. Altavilla while he served at her family's church, Our Lady of the Snows in Clarks Summit. "I didn't know what else to do."

"It's kind of a shock-and-awe situation," said her father, Al Vargo, echoing many who knew and worshipped with the priest.

Police took the Rev. Altavilla, 315 Wyoming Ave., Scranton, into custody Thursday night after he admitted on the phone - while officers listened - to the now-adult victim of having a "foot fetish" and touching her inappropriately, according to court records. The priest is free on $75,000 unsecured bail after being charged with indecent assault, criminal attempt to indecent assault and corruption of minors. His preliminary hearing is slated for Wednesday.

The Rev. Altavilla was ordained in 1992 and served as an assistant pastor at St. Patrick's Parish from July 1996 to March 2000. The Diocese of Scranton immediately suspended the priest from his position at the Cathedral Church of St. Peter in Scranton and asked for anyone with information to come forward.

In a statement to media, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said the church should aggressively seek out more victims.

"We hope, although it is unlikely, that this was an isolated incidence. Predators rarely attack only once. It's not enough for Bishop Joseph Bambera to simply suspend this priest and express anger. What children and victims need now is action," part of the statement read.

Parishioners recalled the priest as very accessible, relatable and kind man. Some called him Father Frosty, because of his frequent references in sermons to the winter character, said Mr. Vargo, 52, who helped the priest serve communion as a eucharistic minister.

As a frequent attendee of Mass at the Cathedral Church of St. Peter in Scranton, Annie Longo, 66, of Scranton, knew the priest and called him an "all-around nice guy," but said the many examples of area priests abusing children was affecting her and others.

"I know that I'm struggling myself with my faith right now," Ms. Longo said. "It's extremely hard. Every time you turn around, it's another instance, something else is happening."

"What gives them the right to be up on an altar and up preaching to us when they're not behaving themselves?" she added.

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