Ex-Priest Admits Molesting Boys While a Pastor in Perth Amboy

Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey)
June 16, 1999

When Michael Santillo served as pastor at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Perth Amboy, he was known as a warm-hearted man who worked hard to raise funds and comfort the sick.

He endeared himself to his parishioners with elaborate magic tricks and with corny jokes and songs. But Santillo had a darker side.

The former priest admitted yesterday that while serving as pastor of St. Mary's, he sexually assaulted a 13-year-old altar boy and molested three of the youngster's friends in his living quarters at the church rectory.

"I want to plead guilty, your honor," Santillo said in a soft voice, his hands folded in front of him and his head bowed as he stood in a New Brunswick courtroom. "I want this to come to an end."

His guilty plea ended a nightmare for Santillo's victims, three of whom sat in the back of the courtroom glaring at the man they said robbed them of their childhood. The former altar boy had said he spent 10 years hooked on heroin before his mother finally persuaded him to go to police and tell them what Santillo had done to him.

Each of the victims, all now in their mid-20s, declined to comment yesterday, saving their remarks for the court when Santillo is sentenced Nov. 15. He could face up to 10 years in prison.

The former altar boy, who blamed his drug addiction on Santillo, cursed under his breath after leaving the courtroom.

Word of Santillo's guilty plea left many parishioners stunned and in disbelief about the likable man they knew as "Father Mike."

"It's very difficult to figure out how it could happen. The rectory is a very busy place," said Norine Gall, a trustee of St. Mary and a former teacher in the church school. "I'm appalled and I'm sick to my stomach. I held him in the highest esteem."

"I don't think he's guilty," James Kehoe, a parish member and a Perth Amboy school board member, said even after learning of the guilty plea. "I just think he was too busy doing priestly work," Kehoe said, recalling a day when his son was in a hospital and Santillo stopped by at 11 p.m. to visit.

Charles White, an 80-year-old actor who had been a St. Mary's parishioner since baptism, was "heartbroken" by the plea. "I find this hard to believe. He was a fine young priest and I hate to see it end this way."

James Hardiman, also a church trustee, said he "was speechless" after hearing Monday night that Santillo was expected to plead guilty. "He did his job extremely well," Hardiman said.

Since the sexual allegations were first made two years ago, Hardiman said, he felt "there was no way in the world they could be true."

Strong support for the pastor continued, even after damaging testimony was aired during a recent pre-trial hearing.

Gall said church members and former altar boys, including one of her sons, had been preparing to testify on Santillo's behalf. Parish members prayed for Santillo. "And we'll pray for those young men, for whatever reason they did this," she said of the two young men who testified against the priest.

At a pretrial hearing Thursday, the altar boy - now a 25-year-old man with a wife and two children - tearfully recounted how he and his friends were lured by the priest and sexually assaulted. The victim, who appeared humiliated as he recalled details of the sexual assault, could not look at Santillo as he spoke before a hushed courtroom.

Santillo, who resigned from the priesthood in 1992 to care for his sickly parents, watched intently Thursday as the young man and two of his friends provided details of the assaults. Superior Court Judge Barnett E. Hoffman heard the testimony in advance to determine which portions could be presented at trial.

Attorneys said yesterday the testimony was so compelling it persuaded the judge to push for a plea agreement. The testimony persuaded the former priest to confess.

"When he confronted his accusers, he realized he didn't want to put them through a trial," his attorney, Thomas P. Fischer of Washington Township, said later.

"It was obvious to us that the judge was persuaded by the testimony of the accusers and he was going to let that into evidence at the trial. The judge told us that if (Santillo) was convicted, he would give him 20 years" in prison with no hope of parole for 10 years, Fischer said.

Facing the likelihood of a long prison term, Santillo, who turns 50 next Thursday, agreed yesterday to plead guilty to one count of aggravated sexual assault, said Assistant Middlesex County Prosecutor Anthony Scarpelli. In exchange, six additional sexual assault, sexual contact and child endangerment counts will be dismissed at sentencing.

Before Santillo is sentenced, he will undergo an examination at the state Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center for sex offenders. If he is found to be a repetitive and compulsive sex offender, Santillo could serve three years in prison and seven more years at the center, in the Avenel section of Woodbridge.

If not a compulsive sex offender, Santillo will be sentenced to serve 10 years in the regular state prison system, and could be eligible for parole after serving 21/2 years behind bars.

Santillo said he performed oral sex on the altar boy after luring him and his friends to his living quarters, where they viewed pornographic films. "I'm sorry," the former priest said meekly, turning to look at the former altar boy.

Santillo was charged only with assaulting one of the four boys because the amount of time allowed by law to file additional assault counts had run out. Child victims have up to five years after their 18th birthday to file such charges.

Despite defense objections, the judge persuaded Santillo to admit his assaults on the other boys as well, assessing that "confession is good for the soul."

The maneuver increased the chances Santillo could serve a longer term at the sex offenders' prison, lawyers said, noting the additional admissions could be the information sex counselors can use to declare Santillo repetitive and compulsive.

Santillo said that in October 1997, he encouraged the boys to participate in a sex contest for money after they viewed an adult video. "I should have put a stop to it then," he said. "We had talked about it downstairs. We had discussed it and I was the one who agreed they would be paid."

Santillo said he groped one of the boys and performed oral sex on three others, including the altar boy. Santillo had been working as an administrator at a parish in Schenectady, N.Y., when he was indicted in 1997.

He was ordained in May 1975 and served at nine churches in the Metuchen and Trenton dioceses.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.