Priest's Past Overtakes Him

By Matt Burgard and Maurice Timothy Reidy
Hartford Courant [Connecticut]
May 18, 2002

For almost 30 years, the Rev. Louis Paturzo's secret stayed hidden from the world, driving him, he said, to find redemption in his work in Hartford's poorest neighborhoods.

On Friday, Paturzo resigned from his job at a Hartford middle school after acknowledging two complaints that he fondled adolescent boys in the early 1970s.

Paturzo, best known for his work with troubled youths in the city — a ministry that included mediating between violent street gangs during the lethal drug wars of the early 1990s — said he could not discuss specifics of the allegations.

But he said he has carried with him the guilt and embarrassment of the acts of a sexually confused young man, and the hope that 21 years of working with the city's poor residents will lead to forgiveness.

"When people tell me what a great person I am, I can't help but recoil and shake my head," Paturzo, 54, said in an interview with The Courant. "In many ways, I do these things to seek atonement."

In two separate but similar complaints, Paturzo is accused of groping two adolescent boys in the 1970s when he was serving as a deacon, before his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest.

One complaint was filed anonymously in 1993 by a mother who accused Paturzo of fondling her son in Hamden 17 years earlier. Although the complaint was investigated by state police, it was not proven. However, the Hartford archdiocese sent Paturzo to two institutions for psychiatric evaluation and therapy.

The second allegation was filed in February by a man, now in his 40s, who said he was groped by Paturzo in a Waterbury rectory in 1972. The complainant, a Washington state businessman, has requested a $208,000 settlement from the archdiocese.

Paturzo and a lawyer for the archdiocese both said Friday that the psychiatrists who evaluated Paturzo concluded that he did not pose a threat to young people or the rest of the community.

Paturzo resigned from his part-time job as a peer mediator consultant at Quirk Middle School Friday after two interviews with The Courant about the complaints. The school system accepted his resignation and the Hartford archdiocese is investigating the latest complaint.

John W. Sitarz, an archdiocese lawyer, defended the achdiocese's actions in the mid-1990s."I think it's fair to say that responsible action was taken in response to that anonymous complaint. I can't get into details, but in my experience, it was a very appropriate response," he said.

Sitarz said the archdiocese was not aware from the outset that Paturzo was working at Quirk. When officials learned about it, they were assured he was primarily working with adult interns and was supervised when talking to children.

"The only thing that I heard is that in a given case that might be particularly complex, he will sit down with the intern and the student. It's uncommon, but it does happen," Sitarz said.

Paturzo did not deny the allegations made in the complaints, including the most recent one made by a former choirboy in a Waterbury parish. Instead, he spoke of an "immature" 24-year-old deacon whose "stunted" sexual development led to inappropriate acts.

Paturzo's background focuses attention on yet another long-concealed issue within the Catholic church — namely, how to handle priests whose sexual and emotional immaturity makes them a potential threat to young people.

In the most recent complaint, Paturzo is accused of sneaking the victim, who was then 13 or 14, into his room at the rectory at Sacred Heart Church in Waterbury. Paturzo threw the boy onto his bed and licked and nuzzled his face while reaching for his groin, according to the victim's complaint sent to the archdiocese.

When the victim, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Robert, resisted, Paturzo seemed confused and told the boy to relax, saying they could have fun wrestling and playing, according to the victim's complaint.

In several letters to the Hartford archdiocese, Robert said he felt ashamed for waiting almost 30 years to bring the allegations to light, but felt compelled to act in the midst of the ongoing national church sexual abuse scandal.

Robert has also asked the church to consider offering the monetary settlement for the damages allegedly caused by Paturzo. He said he has managed to live a productive life despite the trauma of his alleged encounter with "Deacon Louie," as he calls Paturzo in his letters.

"The way I was raised as an Irish Catholic, this was a priest. You never said anything against a priest," Robert said. "I feel if I had done something, maybe I could have saved some [other] kids."

Sitarz said Hartford Archbishop Daniel Cronin, who earlier this week agreed to notify state authorities of all sexual abuse allegations against priests, has not decided what action to take if the allegations against Paturzo are confirmed.

"The sad fact is that he's been doing great work," Sitarz said, echoing comments by other city officials and community activists. "But if our policy says ABC has to happen, it will happen."

Robert's complaint came nine years after a similar complaint was lodged against Paturzo, this one in the form of an anonymous letter sent by a woman who saw the priest on the TV news. The woman, who did not identify herself, was alarmed to see that state police were donating a van to support Paturzo's Hartford youth initiatives. She accused the priest of fondling her son in the 1970s while he was assigned to a church in Hamden, according to three law enforcement sources.

State police made inquiries about the letter to Paturzo and the archdiocese, but no further action was taken because the victim could not be identified, sources said.

But the archdiocese took action anyway, sending Paturzo to the Institute of Living in Hartford for short outpatient treatment and an out-of-state institution for five months of inpatient treatment. Stan Wasilewski, a retired Hartford police officer who served on the department's gang task force, said he called the archdiocese after learning of the state police investigation. Wasilewski, who like many of his colleagues on the task force were suspicious of Paturzo's relationships with gang members, said he asked them to remove Paturzo from Hartford.

"This is a guy who should not be working with teenagers, period. The archdiocese and the school district should never have let him take this position. It's outrageous."

In the same time period, Paturzo was transferred to a new church. When Wasilewski learned Paturzo was back in Hartford about a year later, Wasilewski said he called the archdiocese to complain again but was told Paturzo was fit to remain in the city ministry.

Jacqueline Hardy, a Hartford public school spokeswoman, said the district reluctantly accepted Paturzo's resignation Friday.

"It's really a tragedy because of all the tremendous things he has accomplished and contributed to the young people of this city," she said, adding that counselors will be on hand to talk about the priest's resignation when students return to school Monday. "Everyone is really upset. These allegations are really a surprise."

Hardy said the district conducted a thorough background check on Paturzo when he was hired to work at Quirk three years ago. The priest was asked to take the job by school officials who thought he would be ideal for addressing issues of violence and anger management under a federal grant, working out of Quirk's Student and Family Assistance Center. He was brought in to deal with those issues after the school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Paturzo also works part time as a prison chaplain at three correctional centers for adults in Connecticut while participating in many Hartford community improvement agencies such as the city drug and alcohol commission.

In separate interviews, the downcast, unassuming Paturzo confessed that much of the good work he has done in his 21 years in Hartford has been done with an impulse to right the wrongs of his past.

In the dead of night, "Father Lou," as the Hartford kids call him, was known to leave his apartment to go to the home of a poor Hartford family whose son has been killed in a gang fight. Many times, Paturzo has presided over funerals of young men cut down in the city's relentless and merciless turf wars.

And throughout, whenever Paturzo won yet another accolade for his commitment to the city's youth, he said he often thought of the boys whose lives were damaged by the "boundaries" he crossed all those years ago.

At times, he said, he felt confident that his hard work and devotion to the community had earned him redemption.

"I can say with a clear conscience that in 21 years in Hartford there has never been a kid who could say I behaved immorally or inappropriately toward them," he said. "I'm not the same priest who came to Hartford 21 years ago. I've grown up."

But in recent weeks, he said he has observed with dread the black cloud that now hangs over his church. He has seen the televised images of priests such as John Geoghan of Boston being dragged into court on charges of sexually abusing young boys.

Now Paturzo said he fears the revelations of his past will destroy not only his prospects for continuing to work in the city, but also the fragile relationships he has forged with many vulnerable young people and their families.

"If this was just about me, I'd have no problem letting the secrets out because they've been with me so long, it would be like a relief," he said. "But there are a lot of kids out there who rely on me and trust me. I worry about the damage this will cause."


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