Parishioners Shocked to Hear Sex Charges against Former Priest Many Doubt

By Jim O'Neill
Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey)
August 22, 1997

During his four years as pastor of a Roman Catholic church in Perth Amboy, Michael Santillo worked hard raising funds, comforting the sick and remembering the congregation in his prayers.

A devout man who ran many of the business and social functions at St. Mary's, Santillo also found time to give communion to patients in the local hospital and provide counseling at neighborhood Alcoholics Anonymous.

He had a lighter side, too. A warm smile that stretched across his portly face and his friendly persona made his sometimes dry, and even corny, jokes a little more palatable.

His sense of compassion, ability to mediate family disputes and his penchant for magic tricks could make him quite likable.

Those were the recollections yesterday of St. Mary's parishioners who were stunned to learn that Santillo, 48, has been charged with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old altar boy at the parish in 1987.

Santillo, who resigned the priesthood in 1992 to care for his ill parents in Florida, was traced by Middlesex County authorities to Schenectady, N.Y., where he was charged with four counts of assault and child endangerment.

"I can't believe such a thing could happen," said Michael Kupst, a 25-year-old Highland Park resident and former St. Mary's altar boy who served with Santillo.

"I'd like to believe it's not true and I'd like to believe that if you asked 100 altar boys, they'd all say the same thing I'm saying."

Many parishioners rallied around their former pastor yesterday, hoping the charges against him would be proven false.

Santillo, a priest for nearly 17 years, is scheduled to appear today in a New York courtroom to say whether he will voluntarily return to New Jersey next week to face the charges.

Police said they expect him to waive extradition and return voluntarily. His lawyer would not return four phone calls seeking comment.

Santillo, who served as St. Mary's pastor from July 1985 to July 1989, was indicted by a Middlesex County grand jury that charged he performed sex acts on the boy in the church rectory on several occasions between January and July 1987.

A message sent to the Schenectady County Jail seeking comment went unanswered by Santillo.

Perth Amboy Detective Kenneth Puccio and Investigator George Trillhaase of the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office began an investigation after the altar boy, now a 23- year-old man, went to authorities in April, charging he had been assaulted, according to Assistant Prosecutor Julia McClure. Police have withheld the identity of the man and say he will not talk to the press.

The indictment was handed up the following month but remained sealed until Aug. 8, when police found the former priest in Schenectady, working as an administrative assistant at St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church. Police arrested him last Friday.

Authorities said Santillo was not trying to avoid the law, noting he was unaware that charges had been filed against him.

Santillo was born in Morristown and grew up in a blue-collar family, according to parishioners who knew him.

His father was a laborer and Santillo often talked about his father

SANTILLO coming home in sweaty T-shirts after a hard day's work.

Parishioners said they knew little else about Santillo's upbringing, and officials at the Diocese of Metuchen said they did not have records available.

But church officials provided an account of Santillo's service in the Trenton and Metuchen dioceses, saying he was ordained May 17, 1975, and served in nine churches during his career. He also spent five years teaching in St. Pius X, a now-defunct Catholic high school in Piscataway.

Churches in which he worked were identified as St. Rose of Lima in Freehold, Our Lady of Peace in Fords, St. Justin in Toms River, St. Joseph in Bound Brook, Our Lady of the Lourdes in Whitehouse Station, St. John Vianney in Colonia, St. Jude in Blairstown, and St. Mary's and St. Joseph in Washington, Warren County.

It was Santillo's last assignment, St. Joseph, where he did some of his best work, authorities said. As the church's first pastor, he handled fund-raising and oversaw construction of the church.

While he was working at St. Mary's and later at St. Joseph, his parents developed health problems, church officials and parishioners said. He left St. Joseph and the priesthood in February 1992 and went to Florida to care for his parents.

Bishop Edward T. Hughes, spiritual leader of the Diocese of Metuchen, "said there were never any complaints about him." Santillo left the priesthood under favorable circumstances, according to Al Femia, a diocese spokesman.

The Rev. John Provost, pastor of the Schenectady church, said Santillo nursed his parents back to health. While living in Clermont, Fla., he worked in various office- management type jobs, Provost said.

He and others said they did not know what brought Santillo to Schenectady last February, when he began working for the church.

Jim Kehoe, a St. Mary's parishioner and Perth Amboy school board vice president, called the charges against the ex-priest "disturbing. It's a shame." He too said he did not believe Santillo would harm a child.

"My son worked in the rectory for four years and there was never a problem," Kehoe said. "I find it hard to believe."

Also rallying to Santillo's defense was Charles White, a 79-year-old actor who has been a St. Mary's parishioner since he was baptized there as an infant.

"The whole feeling was one of terrible tragedy" among parishioners, White said. "It's tragic in every sense of the word. Whatever happens, his reputation is ruined."


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