Md. Priest Acquitted of Molestation Charge; Cleric, One of Four Accused, Will Not Be Allowed to Resume Duties, Archdiocese Says

By Philip P. Pan; Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post
November 23, 1995

The Rev. Edward T. Hartel, one of four local Roman Catholic priests stripped of religious authority in January after they were accused of molesting altar boys during the 1960s and '70s, was acquitted yesterday following a short but tense trial in Prince George's County.

Hartel, 59, was accused in only one incident and faced one count of unnatural and perverted sex. Circuit Court Judge William B. Spellbring found him not guilty of the charge after a three-hour trial.

Later, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington said Hartel will not be allowed to return to priestly duties. That angered some parishioners at the Shrine of St. Jude, in Rockville, who accused church officials yesterday of mishandling their former pastor's case.

During the trial, one former altar boy -- now a 35-year-old Baltimore business executive -- identified Hartel as the man who molested him one night in the bedroom of one of the other accused priests. He said the incident occurred sometime between November 1975 and October 1978 at the Church of St. Matthias in Lanham.

The executive said that Hartel's face was "etched in my mind" and that he could never forget it. Hartel did not take the stand.

In announcing the acquittal, Spellbring listed several factors that he said raised reasonable doubt. He said that the victim did not know the priest's name when he reported the incident to the church in January and that the man provided only a general physical description.

He also was unclear about details such as the year the incident occurred and what the priest was wearing at the time.

"I find that the testimony of [the victim] as to what occurred is factual, and I believe that such acts did occur," he said. "The real question in this case is whether this defendant is the person who committed those acts."

Hartel's accuser could not be reached for comment.

Albert Brault, the defense attorney, said Hartel was "enormously relieved. . . . He feels vindicated, and he wants time to rest and figure out what he wants to do."

Brault said he believed Hartel was wrongly "dragged into the troubles" involving the three other priests who were accused of child abuse and sexual misconduct in January. The other priests each were accused by at least three individuals, some of whom said the abuse continued over years.

Church officials maintained yesterday that all four priests admitted to misconduct when they were confronted by the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington in January. "The court has its standards, and we have ours," spokeswoman Dawn Weyrich Ceol said.

Brault denied that Hartel ever admitted to the charge.

Joseph Jacques, chairman of St. Jude's finance committee and a friend of Hartel's, said the priest told him before the allegations were announced that he had been wrongly accused.

Church officials "denied him all human rights and just basically threw him out as a scapegoat," Jacques said. Jacques and parish secretary Maria Myers said they want Hartel to return. "I would like to see him back actively ministering as a priest. . . . I don't see any reason why he shouldn't be able to do that," Myers said.

In one of the other cases, Spellbring last month sentenced the Rev. Thomas S. Schaefer, 69, to 16 years in prison after he pleaded guilty. The Rev. Alphonsus M. Smith, 71, also has pleaded guilty and will be sentenced in December. The Rev. Edward B. Pritchard, 51, is scheduled to go to trial in two weeks.


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