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Pennsylvania

Bishop mum on accused priest

| Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, 10:27 a.m.

The bishop of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown on Monday told parishioners at a Somerset County church whose priest is accused of sexually exploiting teenage boys at a Central American orphanage that he can't speak about the case.

But Bishop Mark L. Bartchak told about 300 gathered at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Central City that he shares their concerns regarding the allegations against the Rev. Joseph D. Maurizio Jr., 69.

“This is an extremely difficult time,” said Bartchak after a 7 p.m. Mass. “I share the same awkward and difficult feelings about this whole matter.”

In a criminal complaint, federal officials said Maurizio, under the guise of doing relief work through a self-run charity, visited an orphanage in El Progreso, Honduras, at various times for a decade, promising candy and cash to orphaned boys to watch them shower, have sex or fondle them.

During a detention hearing on Monday in Johnstown, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Haines told a federal magistrate judge that two boys, ages 5 and 7, made allegations during the weekend that are under investigation.

Bartchak suspended Maurizio earlier this month when federal agents raided his Windber farm and the church's rectory.

The bishop used a short question-and-answer session in an effort to assure those in attendance that the church's pastoral needs will be met, with volunteer priests to conduct services until a permanent replacement is found.

A number of parishioners said after the session they do not believe the allegations.

“He was set up,” said Rose Sprock of Cairnbrook. “We're in awe over it all, but we support him, 100 percent.”

Maurizio is charged by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations Pittsburgh with engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place and possession of child pornography.

After the detention hearing on Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Pesto ordered Maurizio detained until trial. He is considered a flight risk and is wanted on a Honduran arrest warrant that could result in an extradition request, according to court documents.

Haines told Pesto investigators found two photos on Maurizio's rectory computer of a now-deceased, polio-stricken boy “posed” to display his genitals. They are in the process of reviewing 18,000 images on computers and other media storage devices, she said.

Maurizio's attorney, Steven Passarello of Altoona, said the allegations are unfounded.

“These charges are regurgitated from 2009, when they were deemed unfounded,” Passarello said. “The FBI had the case five years ago, and they did nothing. Neither did Honduras.”

Passarello said a number of people testified as character witnesses during the hearing, with many of Maurizio's former parishioners in attendance.

During the hearing, Passarello described the case as “weak” because it is based on five-year-old allegations and two pictures.

According to the criminal complaint, the nonprofit that ran the Honduran orphanage initiated an internal investigation when a staff member overheard boys arguing over whether or not to report “Father Joe” had solicited them for sexual favors.

Several children reported to board members that Maurizio took photos of them naked, or had them perform sex acts — including one incident inside a chapel at the orphanage — in exchange for money, candy and other valuables, according to the complaint. The nonprofit in November 2009 reported the allegations to the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, the FBI and the state Attorney General Office's, according to the complaint.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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