Walnutport priest removed from ministry after taking ‘disturbing’ photos of wrestlers, diocese says
By Riley Yates
January 5, 2020
|The Rev. Tom Derzack, shown here in 2007, discussing declining enrollment in Catholic schools, has been removed from ministry by the Allentown Diocese after taking photos of wrestlers without their knowledge at a tournament at Bethlehem Catholic High School.|
Photo by JOHN T. SANDERS
A Catholic priest in Walnutport was removed from ministry after he was seen taking “disturbing” photographs of wrestlers at a high school tournament last month, the Diocese of Allentown announced Sunday.
The Rev. Thomas A. Derzack, 70, pastor of St. Nicholas Parish, took the photos Dec. 27 without the wrestlers’ knowledge during the event at the Bethlehem Catholic High School gym, the diocese said. Using his phone, Derzack photographed the wrestlers from behind as they were waiting to compete, leading to a complaint by a concerned spectator, the diocese said.
In a prepared statement, Bishop Alfred Schlert said Derzack’s actions violated church standards for acceptable behavior. Derzack was suspended as a precaution while the diocese investigates, and he is also barred from school events and property, the statement said.
“The behavior is disturbing, especially for a priest,” Paul Wirth, a spokesman for the diocese, said in an email. “But the response to it shows our child protection protocols at work. A vigilant adult saw something suspicious and reported it, the authorities addressed it immediately, and the Bishop removed the priest from ministry.”
Attempts to reach Derzack were not returned Sunday.
Derzack was ordained in 1976, and previously served in parishes in Coplay, West Trenton, New Jersey, Emmaus, Lansford, Whitehall and Bangor, the diocese said.
The diocese said it is cooperating in an ongoing police investigation, but authorities Sunday said the criminal investigation has concluded and no charges will be filed.
Northampton County District Attorney Terence Houck said the photos included zoomed-in pictures of the boys’ buttocks, but were taken in a public place and did not capture nudity. As such, they did not amount to a criminal act, he said.
“Disturbing, I guess is the word you would use without it being criminal," Houck said. “It seemed to be disturbing a little bit.”
Derzack’s suspension comes as the church has faced withering criticism over its handling of allegations of priest misconduct, including a 2018 report by a Pennsylvania grand jury that exposed decades of clergy abuse and its cover-up. The report detailed 37 priests from the Allentown Diocese, and the diocese has since added about 20 other names to the list.
For the wrestling event, Derzack was not dressed in clerical attire, the diocese said. After the spectator became suspicious, a police officer at the tournament was notified and spoke with Derzack, who agreed to delete the photographs and left the school, the diocese said.
Derzack was suspended on Dec. 30 after the diocese verified that he was the man questioned at the gym, Wirth said. The complaint is the first against Derzack that the diocese is aware of, Wirth said.
Even without criminal charges, the church investigation will continue, Wirth said. The Independent Review Board, a panel that advises the bishop on clergy abuse, is tasked with reviewing the findings and recommending whether Derzack is suitable for the ministry, the diocese said.
Derzack joins three diocese priests who face pending misconduct allegations:
The Rev. Kevin M. Lonergan was removed from ministry in June 2018 after he groped a 17-year-old Allentown Central Catholic High School student and sent her nude photos. He faces sentencing Jan. 13 after pleading guilty in Lehigh County Court to indecent assault.
The Rev. Francis A. Nave, pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Bath, was suspended in June 2018 after a Virginia man filed a lawsuit claiming Nave coerced him as a teenager to expose himself during online counseling sessions. The diocese has since settled the man’s suit for an undisclosed sum.
In September, the Rev. Robert J. Potts, pastor of St. Ursula Church in Fountain Hill, was removed from ministry pending the investigation of an allegation that he sexually abused a minor in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the diocese said.
At least two suspended priests have returned to the pulpit, after the diocese said allegations against them proved to be false. In September 2018, Berks County prosecutors cleared the Rev. David C. Gillis, an Allentown diocesan priest serving in Florida, of abuse allegations, allowing him to return as a priest in good standing.
That same month, the Rev. Edward Sacks of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Bethlehem Township was removed from ministry after being named as an alleged sex abuser. But he was cleared of the charge within weeks, after the diocese said an investigation showed the “accusation was made in error.”