Pastor Accused of Assault
Rev. James J. Mihalak of Pottsville Allegedly Fondled 17-Year-Old Hitchhiker in Car

By Chuck Ayers
Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
July 31, 1997

A Pottsville priest was charged Wednesday with the indecent assault of a 17-year-old boy he picked up hitchhiking last month from the Cressona Mall in North Manheim Township.

The Rev. James J. Mihalak, 46, pastor of Mary, Queen of Peace, Catholic Church, was charged by state police at Frackville for allegedly fondling the youth during a meandering drive on the roads of central Schuylkill County.

According to a probable-cause affidavit filed with District Justice Bruce Plachko of Port Carbon, Mihalak fondled the youth on a back road outside Tuscarora, just north of Route 209.

When Mihalak saw the teen crying, he turned the car around and the boy got out on Route 209 near Tuscarora, according to the arrest papers.

Police said the incident occurred between 1 and 1:30 p.m. June 20.

Mihalak, who has been relieved of his ecclesiastical duties, could not be reached for comment.

The Catholic Diocese of Allentown, however, issued a short statement Wednesday.

"It is with a deep sense of regret that the Diocese of Allentown acknowledges that charges of indecent assault have been filed against the Rev. James J. Mihalak, pastor of Mary, Queen of Peace, Pottsville. Since this matter is presently under investigation we have nothing further to add at this time," said Deacon John W. Murphy Jr., diocese spokesman.

Murphy said Mihalak's suspension was effective the day the diocese was notified of the allegations and will continue until the church can investigate the allegations.

Murphy said he didn't know when the diocese had been notified.

"He is on leave until everything is straightened out," Murphy said.

According to Murphy, the diocese has received no allegations of untoward behavior by the priest in the past.

"Nothing like that has ever happened, or something would've been done about it," Murphy said.

Murphy also said Bishop Thomas Welsh and Monsignor Joseph Whalen, chancellor of the diocese, are on vacation until Monday.

He expected both would be informed of the Mihalak developments Wednesday night or today.

According to court papers, Mihalak repeatedly complimented the teen on his muscle tone and felt his arms, legs, stomach and chest while they drove. He twice asked the boy if he wanted him to pull off the road. The boy declined, saying he wanted to go home, according to the papers.

After he got out of the car near Tuscarora, about 15 miles from his home, the youth took note of the vehicle's license plate, which police traced to Mihalak. He told his mother what had happened when he returned home, and the family called police, according to the documents.

The teen said he saw the car, a silver gray Honda, on July 7 in the church parking lot and identified Mihalak as the man who molested him, according to the arrest papers.

None of the members of the church contacted by The Morning Call would comment on Mihalak.

Comments from church organist Mary Lou Woznisky of Pottsville typified the response.

"I'm very upset about this. I really don't want to talk about this," she said.

Before becoming pastor at Mary, Queen of Peace, Mihalak served as pastor at St. Ann's Catholic Church, Frackville, and St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, Shenandoah. While at St. Stanislaus, he was an instructor at Cardinal Brennan High School, Fountain Springs, Schuylkill County. He was also part-time chaplain at Frackville State Prison.

In 1983-84, he was principal at Pius X, Roseto, and prior to that taught at the school for six years.

According to an article published in 1987 in the Reading Eagle, Mihalak is an alumnus of Central Catholic High School, Reading.

He was ordained in 1976.

This is the fourth time in the last 10 years that a priest in the Allentown Diocese has been charged with a sexual offense or admitted to inappropriate sexual contact.

Last year, Monsignor Stephen T. Forish, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church in East Allentown, was charged with prostitution-related offenses for allegedly offering to pay to perform sex on a man. When the man threw water on him, Forish allegedly asked if the man knew any 15-year-old boys who would be interested.

Earlier this year, the Rev. David A. Soderlund filed suit against the Allentown Diocese, claiming he was removed as director of pastoral care at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center, Pottsville. Soderlund admitted having a sexual addiction to teens. The suit was dismissed.

The Rev. Thomas Bender pleaded guilty in 1989 to indecent assault and corruption of the morals of a minor. Police alleged that Bender had sexually molested a boy while he was pastor at Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Bally.


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