Worker's Arrest Hits Priest Hard

Times Union (Albany, NY)
August 23, 1997

Schenectady The Rev. John Provost had known the man for 30 years, since their days as seminarians at Our Lady of Angels in Glenmont.

So when Michael Santillo applied for a job at St. John the Evangelist, Provost's church, Provost thought he had a good candidate, a former priest who was experienced in church clustering and pastoral planning. A check into his references reportedly supported that feeling, and Santillo was hired in February as the associate for administration in a cluster comprised of St. John's, St. Mary's and Holy Cross in Schenectady.

But earlier this month, while Provost was saying Mass at Holy Cross, police came to St. John's and arrested Santillo on a warrant for sex crime charges in Middlesex County, New Jersey. He was charged with being a fugitive from justice and sent to the Schenectady County Jail.

On Friday, Santillo waived his right to an extradition hearing in Schenectady County Court, and Judge Michael C. Eidens ordered him transported back to New Jersey, said Assistant District Attorney Brian Casey.

Casey said Santillo declined to give his date of birth, address and Social Security number in court Friday on the advice of his attorney, Adam Perkins. Casey said a suspect's date of birth can be a factor in the prosecution of sex crimes.

Santillo, 48, is wanted in New Jersey on a count of aggravated sexual assault, two counts of sexual assault and one count of endangering the welfare of a child.

According to Capt. Steve Kaminsky, who heads the Middlesex County prosecutor's office in New Brunswick, Santillo allegedly had sexual contact with an altar boy while serving as a priest.

An indictment was handed up in late May this year, after the victim came forward to report the assault, Kaminsky said. The warrant was issued Aug. 8.

At the time of the alleged assault, Santillo was a priest at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Perth Amboy, in the Diocese of Metuchen, according to Monsignor Seamus Brennan, a spokesman for the diocese. Santillo was a priest at St. Mary's from 1985 to 1989 and then was transferred to St. Joseph's in Washington, where he served until 1992. He then resigned and moved to Florida to care for aging parents. In Florida, he worked in the travel and tourism industry.

"We were very surprised by this allegation," Brennan said.

Provost was shocked, too. "I thought I had someone with great expertise," he said. "And because we are friends, I was careful to check on his references. It couldn't be said that I just hired a friend."

As associate for administration, Santillo coordinated the office and scheduled committee activities. He had little contact with parishioners, and no responsibilities involving children, Provost said. Many people, he said, knew nothing of the arrest.

Still, Provost wanted to allay any lingering fears. At all the Masses last weekend, he read a statement. "While we have no reason to believe anything similar has occurred here, given the serious nature of the charges we certainly would encourage anyone from our community who has any concerns in this regard to please come forward," the statement said.

"I apologized," Provost said. "As pastor, I've got to accept responsibility for what goes on in churches. I have to apologize for whatever embarrassment goes on in the churches."

The staff, he said, had a range of reactions. "Most were surprised," he said. "Some of us are hurt. Some of us are upset. Some were totally surprised. I just think we tried to support each other."

Denise Nelligan, a parishioner from Schenectady, said she first learned of the arrest at Mass. "It's was a real shock," said Nelligan, who had talked to Santillo just once. "He was very nice, quiet. A lot of parishioners thought that Father Provost put too much blame on himself."

Sister Kathleen Turley, a chancellor for the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, said Bishop Howard J. Hubbard has met with staff at St. John's to discuss the situation and has offered to provide a counselor, if necessary, to help parents discuss the matter with their children.

"Bishop Hubbard is very supportive and very saddened by it," she said. "We thought we did everything at the time the person was hired. The pastor did go through the proper procedures. There was nothing that would indicate anything had happened."

Looking back, Provost isn't sure what else he could have done. "Nobody knew there was an investigation going on," he said. "Believe me, if there was an investigation going on, I would've said this is inappropriate. I thought we had checked things pretty carefully."

Since his arrest, Santillo has resigned from his job at the church and in a meeting with Provost, has apologized for "any embarrassment and hurt" he caused.

And while nothing is scheduled, Provost said he is still encouraging people to come forward.

"If there is one word to describe the mood, it's sadness," he said. "But there's also a sense that we need to get on with our parish. We don't want to sweep this under the rug. We need to address it."


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