Charity’s persistence led to Somerset County priest’s arrest
Elizabeth Williams tried to keep her composure as people filed into a courtroom in U.S. District Court in Johnstown to hear the news: Did a jury find a Somerset County priest guilty of sexually abusing three boys at a Honduran orphanage she operated for years as president of a nonprofit foundation?
When four Honduran men she hadn’t seen since they were boys living at the orphanage were led into the courtroom by federal agents, she couldn’t hold back the tears.
Days before, three of the men had testified that the Rev. Joseph D. Maurizio, 70, molested them. The fourth told jurors he saw the priest touching a boy in the front seat of a car and having sex with other boys in a church and outside a dormitory.
“I did become emotional at that point,” Williams said Wednesday. “It had been years since I first saw those tapes (of victim interviews) taken by our own staff in Honduras of those same kids.
“They are young men now, but here we were gathered in one room and one way or another, after all of these years, we were finally going to see justice,” said Williams, a physician assistant who lives in Richmond, Va.
Maurizio, the longtime priest of Our Lady of Angels Church in Central City, was found guilty of having sex with the three boys at the orphanage, which he supported through his nonprofit foundation, Humanitarian Interfaith Ministries; transferring money to Honduras to fund his illicit activities; and having pornographic photos of boys.
ProNiño Honduras was founded by George Mealor, a retired Army sergeant who was born in the Central American country to an American father and Honduran mother. His developed a rehabilitation center for the street children of El Progreso, the country’s fourth-largest city, located at the base of the Burned Monkey mountain range.
Williams said she met Mealor and his wife during a trip to Honduras to assist with medical relief after Hurricane Mitch swept through in 1998, killing 7,000 people. She admired the Mealors’ work, and they asked her to join the board and travel to the orphanage a few times a year. She was president of the nonprofit from 2002 to 2011.
Maurizio had been affiliated with the orphanage for “a long time before I came aboard,” she said.
Williams recalled her shock when the allegations against the priest surfaced in 2009. In August of that year, ProNiño’s administrators split with its founder, but Maurizio, one of its primary benefactors, would continue to support the orphanage. She said Maurizio’s foundation contributed about $4,000 a month, “between 20 to 30 percent” of what the orphanage needed to house, feed, clothe, educate and support 80 to 90 teenage boys.
“We were enormously pleased when (Maurizio) said he would continue to support us then because he was such good friends with Mealor,” Williams said.
In October, stories began to surface at the orphanage about Maurizio that stunned administrators: some boys said the priest had molested them.
“At first it was just a couple of kids, but it was terribly disturbing to all of us. None of us ever would have suspected Father Joe,” she said.
Before Williams even told ProNiño’s board of directors, she boarded a plane for Honduras.
“I know false allegations could ruin peoples’ lives. You couldn’t just leave this alone. … It was far too important,” she said. “But I wanted to speak directly with people before I brought it to our board and contacted authorities.
“I was hoping it was a bunch of smoke, but unfortunately I found it was much more grave. Other individuals had come forward — all with similar stories — and you just couldn’t ignore it,” she said.
Prosecutors presented evidence at trial that before his mission trips to Central America from 2004-09, Maurizio transferred $8,000 from bank accounts in Pennsylvania through his foundation. He used the money to buy gifts — clothes, shoes and jewelry — for the boys to gain their trust and to ensure that they complied with the sexual acts, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice.
Williams said after getting firsthand confirmation of the boys’ complaints in October 2009, she flew back to the United States and informed the ProNiño board, who in turn contacted the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese and federal authorities. ProNiño also contacted Maurizio, who said he was withdrawing his support.
“We were devastated and brokenhearted. … But we certainly had to take whatever action to protect those kids,” Williams said.
Williams said the three victims who testified at the trial weren’t the only boys who reported Maurizio had abused them.
“There were three or four others who came forward that I know of,” she said.
Williams said Department of Homeland Security agents wanted to interview the others but couldn’t find them.
“They had already left the program years earlier and could not be located,” she said.
“I want to stress, this is something none of us ever took lightly. Before the fall of 2009, nothing concerning (Maurizio) had came across our radar,” she said.
Maurizio could receive a maximum of 130 years in prison when he is sentenced Feb. 2 by Judge Kim R. Gibson.
The years of persistence by ProNiño officials to see Maurizio stand trial was lauded Wednesday by a nonprofit that tracks and documents abuse by officials in the Roman Catholic Church, BishopAccountability.org
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the Massachusetts-based group, said “We salute the selflessness and unimaginable bravery of the young victims who traveled from Honduras to testify about their abuse by Father Maurizio. Because of them, other children will not be assaulted by this dangerous man. They are heroes.”
Paul Peirce is a reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 724-850-2860.