Retired priest, 89, sentenced for sexual assault of boy

By Peter Smith
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
February 06, 2020

Following an emotional hearing, a judge on Thursday sentenced a retired Catholic priest to a jail term of nine to nearly 24 months over his conviction last year for sexually assaulting an 11-year-old boy in 2001.

But the priest walked free for at least another month due to a last-minute legal plot twist, complicated by a sudden turnover in two of the key players in his November trial, his own defense lawyer and the judge.

The Rev. Hugh Lang, 89, a one-time school superintendent for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, sat stoically as the sentencing was read, leaning forward with his arms folded on the defense table.

He was dressed in a black outfit but with an open-collar shirt, minus the clerical collar he had worn for more than six decades, because he has been on administrative leave since the allegation became known in 2018.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani, however, delayed implementation of the jail term for 32 days, citing a “procedural quagmire” over a motion filed by Lang’s former lawyer saying the case was beyond the statute of limitations.

Judge Mariani noted that Lang’s new lawyer had the right to file a post-sentence motion arguing that his predecessor, Kerrington Lewis,  was ineffective for seemingly failing to raise this issue before the trial. (Mr. Lewis said by phone later Thursday that he did file his motion at trial but that it was only entered into the record afterward, but nobody at Thursday’s hearing seemed to know that.)

The new defense lawyer, Robert Mielnicki, said he does plan to file a post-sentence motion within 10 days, arguing that the most serious charge under which Lang was convicted, and which drew the jail sentence, was filed too late under the statute. He also said he’d be appealing Lang’s verdict to an appellate court.

That wrangling, which took place at an afternoon hearing, was anticlimactic compared with the emotional morning sentencing hearing.

Lang had been convicted in November on one felony and five misdemeanors for sexually assaulting a boy who had made a joke at the priest’s expense during a summer camp for altar servers at St. Therese Parish in Munhall, where Lang was pastor at the time.

Lang denied his guilt during the trial and did not give a statement at his sentencing.

The victim, now 30, and his parents were present at Thursday’s hearing, and each provided emotionally moving impact statements to the judge.

“Before 2001, my son and I were friends,” the victim’s father said, recalling teaching his son German and playing chess with him. But after that, the son couldn’t wait to get out of the house and cause mischief and eventually to move “as far away from Pittsburgh as possible.”

The father said he and his wife struggled with the “living hell” of how to deal with him, their marriage strained nearly to the breaking point, and only learned years later it was because “of Hugh Lang’s selfish actions.”

“It undermined the solidarity and well-being of our family, but we weren’t the ones at fault,” he said.

Assistant District Attorney Gregory Stein read the victim’s own impact statement.

The victim said he flew thousands of miles from his current home in Southeast Asia here, requiring him to “rip open this wound all over again.” But he said it was important to bring “some justice to the 11-year-old boy I was.”

In words similar to his testimony in November, the victim recalled being at a summer program for altar servers when, in a shy boy’s awkward attempt to impress his peers with humor, he joked that Father Lang probably drank all the excess communion wine.

He said an enraged Father Lang later took him to an isolated basement room, forced him to undress, took a Polaroid photo of him, fondled him and forced the boy to use his hand on Lang’s penis to perform a sex act.

He said Lang ordered him not to tell anyone and that the existence of the photo effectively silenced him because, as a self-conscious, overweight boy, he was terrified of anyone seeing it.

“He was supposed to be my spiritual mentor,” he said, but added that Lang shattered his ideals and sent him spiraling through years of depression, broken relationships and drug and alcohol abuse.

While the victim testified that Lang assaulted him during the camp, the trial judge concluded it happened later that month after a different activity.

Also present at the sentencing were numerous supporters of Lang, including a retired bishop, two priests and a nun who testified to what they described as his sterling character.

Bishop William Winter, retired auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, said Lang was a childhood friend and that they have each served as a priest in the diocese for more than six decades. “He is as trustworthy as anyone I ever knew,” Bishop Winter said.

The Rev. Mark Eckman, vicar for clergy for the diocese, made similar accolades and said that besides this case, “there has been no complaint of any sort against Father Lang, sexual or not.”

He and Bishop Winter both identified themselves to the court by their titles with the diocese.

Lang, with more than six decades in ministry, was superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Pittsburgh during the 1980s. He was a priest in residence at St. Anne in Castle Shannon until August 2018, when he was placed on administrative leave after the diocese learned of allegations that would later lead to criminal charges.

In a statement, the diocese said it “recognizes and respects the judicial system and acknowledges the sentence handed down today. At the same time, Father Lang continues to maintain his innocence and is exercising his right to appeal. The Diocese will wait until all civil proceedings are brought to conclusion before moving forward” in an internal disciplinary process. Lang is still technically a priest but remains forbidden from public ministry.

“We continue to pray for healing for Father Lang's accuser and all victims of sexual abuse,” the diocese said.

Lang’s name did not appear in the 2018 statewide grand jury report that accused more than 90 priests in the Diocese of Pittsburgh of abuse over seven decades, but he’s the first Pittsburgh priest to be criminally charged since the report.

Mr. Stein had asked for a sentence of up to seven years, which would have put Lang in the state prison system, citing the impact on the victim and his family and saying a tough sentence would deter Lang and other potential offenders from similar crimes.

Mr. Mielnicki asked for house arrest, citing the priest’s advanced age, the lack of any other allegations against him and the testimony to his character.

Judge Mariani took age into account: “I don’t know how much the public needs protection from an 89-year-old man.”

But the victim-impact statement weighed heavily, and the sexual abuse of children is “a subject of community interest,” the judge said. “There needs to be incarceration at the county level.” (By making the maximum sentence 24 months minus one day, he kept the sentence from the two-year minimum that would put it in the state prison system.)

The judge also sentenced Lang to five years’ probation, effective immediately, and ordered him to have no contact with children or with the victim and his family.

Judge Mark Tranquilli, who presided at the November bench trial, had found the priest guilty of one felony — unlawful contact with a minor. He also convicted the priest of five misdemeanors — one count of indecent exposure, three counts of indecent assault and a count of corruption of the morals of a minor.

Judge Tranquilli had been scheduled to sentence Lang, but Allegheny County Common Pleas President  Judge Kim Berkeley Clark this week restricted him from hearing cases after he was accused of making racist remarks about a juror in an unrelated case.

Lang also recently replaced his lawyer from the trial, Mr. Lewis, who Judge Tranquilli had chastised repeatedly at trial over his procedural conduct.

Mr. Mielnicki took up the unresolved matter of Mr. Lewis’ motion over the statute of limitations at the afternoon hearing.

Mr. Mielnicki said that while state lawmakers had since 2001 extended statutes of limitations for the misdemeanors under which Lang was convicted, it never did so for the felony. Mr. Stein argued the specific felony charge directly refers to violations of misdemeanors under which Lang had been convicted, and for which the statute of limitations had not passed.

Judge Mariani set a March 9 hearing on post-sentence motions.



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