Ex-Priest Sentenced For Molesting 3 Boys
Sex Offender Gets 18 Months in Plea Deal

By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post
June 27, 2003

A defrocked Roman Catholic priest who admitted to sexually molesting three altar boys at an Oxon Hill parish in the late 1960s and early '70s was sentenced yesterday to 18 months in jail as part of a plea bargain.

Robert J. Petrella, 65, formerly of St. Columba Catholic Church, who pleaded guilty in March to three counts of unnatural or perverted sex practices, was sentenced to 10 years in prison by Prince George's County Circuit Judge Michael Whalen. In accordance with Petrella's plea deal, Whalen suspended all but 18 months of the term.

Petrella will be placed on three years' supervised probation after his release, will be barred from having sustained contact with anyone younger than 18 and will be required to enroll in a treatment program for sex offenders.

Petrella removed his thick glasses and bowed his head as the sentence was read. He said nothing during the two-hour hearing, but sobbed loudly several times. Through his attorney, William J. Brennan, the former priest apologized to the victims, two of whom addressed the court yesterday.

One of them, now a 46-year-old construction worker living in North Carolina, was molested by Petrella when he was 11. The Washington Post does not identify sex-abuse victims without their permission. The victim, David Fortwengler, said he did not object to his name being published. Addressing the judge, Fortwengler recalled his decision in March 2002 to come forward with allegations against Petrella.

"Imagine how difficult it was to tell my parents what happened to me," Fortwengler said. "To knock on their door unannounced and say, 'It's not that I didn't love you or trust you, but there's something I wish I had told you a long time ago.' . . . The crime he committed, that kind of violation, has affected my mind, has affected my heart and has affected my soul. . . . But he also violated my body, and that's a crime."

He said later that he was satisfied with the 18-month term. "It's not so much about [the length of the sentence] as it is about being held accountable," Fortwengler said, his voice cracking.

Another victim, a 49-year-old Florida resident who did not want his name published, said he was addressing the court "as a grown man, but with the voice of a child." He was molested at 14 and came forward last year after Fortwengler did.

"My sentence is life without parole," the victim, a management consultant, told the judge. "It has affected my family and devastated and appalled my parents, who had total trust in him."

Petrella, ordained in 1964, was put on leave by the Archdiocese of Washington and given psychiatric treatment twice in the 1960s after officials received complaints that he had made sexual advances toward boys. The archdiocese did not alert legal authorities to those allegations.

Petrella was suspended again in 1988 after another allegation and was removed from contact with parishioners the next year. That allegation did not come to the attention of legal authorities until the mid-1990s, and resulted in a guilty plea by Petrella to a charge of battery, for which he served a week in jail.

In April, the Vatican completed the process of removing him from the priesthood. His attorney, Brennan, described Petrella yesterday as "broken in will, broken in spirit and, quite frankly, waiting for death."


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