Psychiatrist: Priest’s Alleged Fetishes Rare, Hard to Detect

Go Lackawanna
April 15, 2014

According to a search warrant affidavit, the Rev. Philip Altavilla admitted to police he has “struggled with a pantyhose, feet, strangulation and chloroform fetish.”

What prompts such disorders? And could it have been detected through psychological screening?

Solid answers remain largely unknown, Geisinger Medical Center Danville Psychiatrist Robert Gerstman said. And because such conditions are comparatively uncommon, there isn’t much incentive to find the answers.

“It’s rare,” Gerstman said. “As far as to why it occurs, they looked into proportions of hormones” — the ratio of testosterone, estrogen and others — “but hormone therapy helps only a few people.”

“There is a low percentage of people who have it,” he said. “Unfortunately, it draws a lot of attention when it does occur.”

On April 3, Altavilla was charged with plying a 13-year-old with alcohol and fondling her feet and legs early Christmas morning in 1998. Police say he admitted to the allegations when the victim called him and police listened in.

Police statement

Scranton police Detective Jennifer Gerrity also wrote in an affidavit that Altavilla “indicated that he took photographs of the victim’s feet, in addition to photos of other teenage girls’ feet. He kept the photos in a bag at his residence.”

Altavilla, raised in Plains Township, “also admitted that he uses the Internet to research videos and images depicted woman being strangulated, given chloroform and then sexually assaulted.”

Gerstman said such disorders are recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders, and it is not uncommon for a person with one arousal disorder, such as a foot fetish, to have another, such as strangulation. But “there are no real numbers to show that,” he said.

“When it happens it’s rather shocking,” Gerstman said. “We don’t have a firm handle on why it happens. There is a general belief that if you satisfy yourself one way or another it goes away, but it doesn’t.”

The search warrant paperwork says Altavilla gave written permission for Gerrity and Detective Vince Uher to search his residence, where they seized a computer and cellphone.

Message on phone

When they did, a message appeared on the cellphone screen “in plain view of Uher … and indicated that the author has been haunted for years, I still remember waking up with you. Nothing further was visible,” the affidavit says, “but based on the training and experience of detective Uher and detective Gerrity the content indicated possible sexual abuse.”

Asked if such disorders can be detected by tests, Gerstman said one of the most widely used psychological screenings, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, “may raise the index of suspicion, but it doesn’t guarantee to point a finger.”

“It may help you to say ‘We have to look at patients a, b and c a little closer than patients d, e and f’,’ ” Gerstman said.

He said one reason there may not be much research on such disorders is that the relative rarity would make any cure, particular a drug, unprofitable.

“In this day and age things that won’t necessarily make a lot of money don’t get researched compared to something that, say, may make some money with a discovery. It’s a sad commentary but I’m afraid it’s accurate,” he said.

Altavilla has been relieved of all priestly duties in the Diocese of Scranton. His preliminary hearing is set for April 30.








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