CHRIS KELLY: Trust shattered again ...

By Chris Kelly
April 11, 2014

CHRIS KELLY: Trust shattered again by charges against well-known Father Philip Altavilla

I met the Rev. Philip Altavilla 14 Palm Sundays ago. He was the pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Taylor, where my wife was raised in the Catholic faith.

I was brought up Presbyterian, but he never held it against me. Father Phil agreed to marry us in the church when many priests wouldn't. I received communion during the ceremony, plain sacrilege to the Old Guard.

Jean Terruso, a wonderful woman scheduled to be my mother-in-law, died of lung cancer a dozen days before the wedding. She was buried in the dress she bought to wear on Her Little Girl's Big Day.

Words are my trade, but I can find none to relate how caring and thoughtful Father Phil was as we mourned Jean's death and celebrated the beginning of our life together. When Dad passed, Phil was there for us. When Phil's father died, we went to the viewing. It was the right thing to do.

Knowing the right thing to do is suddenly complicated. Father Phil has been arrested, accused of giving alcohol to a 13-year-old and touching her inappropriately after a midnight Christmas Mass in 1998. Police say he confessed in a recorded conversation.

It is cliché to say an arrest sent shockwaves through the community, but this time it fits. Father Phil had multitudes of friends, religious and secular. As a stunned parishioner told a local TV station: "If there were a hundred priests, he'd be the last one" you would suspect.

Yet here we are. Again. Another priest, another child, another ugly reminder that supposedly sacred values are situational for some who preach them, that our yardstick for character may be too straight for accurate measurement.

Diocese of Scranton Bishop Joseph C. Bambera wasted no time throwing Father Phil under the public bus:

"I am both angry and demoralized to think that, yet again, a priest has been involved in such inappropriate, immoral and illegal behavior," he said in a press release. "It is particularly distressing that the pastor of our Cathedral Parish, who is known to countless numbers of the faithful and has served in so many positions of trust and responsibility in the Diocese of Scranton has betrayed that trust in such a manner."

That is a stunning rebuke of a popular priest many envisioned as a future bishop.

Under secular law, Father Phil is innocent until proven guilty, but he has been condemned by his bishop. The criminal complaint is brief, but damning. It ends with a priest confessing to a foot fetish and inappropriately touching a 13-year-old he fed alcohol.

While rooted in religious tradition, criminal law stands on its own. Murder is bad for society, regardless of its moral implications. So is rape, theft, abuse of children and a host of other offenses. The law will judge Father Phil by society's standards. If he answers to a higher power, it will be beyond our ability to witness.

Somewhere in this column, the sentence you expect to read is: I really loved Father Phil. Past tense. God knows it's been spoken by heartsick friends and parishioners countless times since his arrest, but I can't write it.

I still love Father Phil. I hate what he did. I feel betrayed. Angry. Confused. Disillusioned. I have a lot of company, but that is cold comfort. It's easy to throw stones at the wicked; hard to walk in their shoes. Jesus said that, but the world was a much simpler place when he walked it.

I planned to attend Father Phil's preliminary hearing on Wednesday, but it was postponed. I called him and left messages, but we never connected. I have questions for him, as a journalist and as a friend. An obvious one: Are there others?

There is also a temptation to question the victim. Why did it take so long for her to come forward? What was she doing out at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning? Where were her parents?

These are the wrong questions, at least for now. The circumstances don't change what happened. A 13 year-old girl was alone with a priest and he apparently took advantage. Putting your hands on a child with sex on your mind is inexcusable. Unforgivable. Some lines can't be uncrossed.

But what to do now that a trusted friend has apparently crossed such a line? How do I reconcile my revulsion with my belief in Christian mercy and forgiveness?

I don't know. In the past if I had a difficult question like this, I'd turn to a trusted friend - like Father Phil.


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