Parishioners defend priest in Greensburg diocese accused of sexually abusing minor
Former and current parishioners of the Rev. Joseph E. Bonafed came to his defense Thursday, saying the public airing of sexual abuse allegations against him a day earlier amounted to a rush to judgment.
“This one I find really hard to believe,” said Chris DeCarlo-Parrendo of Murrysville. “This is just outrageous. He’s loved by so many.”
DeCarlo-Parrendo and her husband, John Parrendo, 57, are parishioners at St. Mary, Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Export, where Bonafed was pastor from 2012-17.
Although she is a lector at St. Mary, DeCarlo-Parrendo and her husband regularly attend St. Edward Parish in Herminie to hear Bonafed preach. Bonafed was assigned to St. Edward and Holy Family Parish, West Newton, in July 2017.
“Never, at any point, have I ever gotten the feeling that he was anything other than a holy priest,” she said.
Bonafed was removed from both pastoral assignments Wednesday, a day after the Diocese of Greensburg received a “credible allegation” against him. The diocese would only say that the allegation involved sexual abuse of a minor 28 years ago.
DeCarlo-Parrendo doubts the veracity of the allegation because it predates Bonafed’s time as a priest by two years. He was ordained in 1992 and celebrated his 25th anniversary as a priest in 2017, while serving at St. Mary and St. John Baptist de La Salle Parish in Delmont.
She wonders whether Bonafed, who was known for making unpopular decisions at the parishes where he served, is the victim of a vendetta.
In 2010, Bonafed was attacked by a man wielding an ax handle, suffering bruises and cuts to his head. The man, a business manager at Immaculate Conception Parish, Connellsville, where Bonafed was pastor, later was sentenced to two to four years in prison for the beating.
At his sentencing, the man, a former seminarian, said he attacked Bonafed because he was afraid his job at the parish was being eliminated.
The allegation against Bonafed was first phoned into the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s sexual abuse hotline in April, according to the diocese. The diocese said it did not learn about the allegation until Tuesday, whereupon it was reported to PA ChildLine and the appropriate district attorney.
Diocese spokesman Jerry Zufelt referred questions about the four-month time gap to the Attorney General’s Office, which gave the following statement:
“Since January, the Office of Attorney General has received hundreds of calls to its clergy sexual abuse hotline, which are received and reviewed by agents within our office. Every call to the hotline alleging criminal activity is investigated, documented and, when appropriate, notifications are made.”
DeCarlo-Parrendo said she shares people’s outrage with the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church, but she believes Bonafed is innocent.
“I do feel for the actual victims, but I think when there’s an accusation … we can’t jump to the conclusion that somebody’s guilty,” said her husband, John Parrendo. “I believe a person’s innocent until found guilty.”
Other parishioners at St. Mary and St. John said they were “devastated” and “shocked” by the allegation and felt compelled to come to Bonafed’s defense.
“It’s his preaching and the feeling I have when I attend his Mass. He’s just a very holy man,” said Chuck Saller, 82, of Harrison City. “He just makes you feel like you can get closer to God by being there for his Mass.”
Saller, although a member of Mother of Sorrows Parish in Murrysville, attended the 4 p.m. Saturday Mass at St. John when Bonafed was pastor there. He got to know him well and saw him on social occasions.
“I’ll never believe that this happened. He just is a caring, compassionate, loving guy,” he said.
Sally Rauscher, 80, of Murrysville, and her husband, Donald, normally attend Mother of Sorrows but traveled to St. Edward to hear Bonafed preach.
She described him as an “ethical” man who would not abuse or assault anyone.
“He is just so good and so caring. He’s so validating of the old and the young. His sermons are just terrific,” Rauscher said.
Vicki Mediate, a Eucharistic minister at St. Mary, said she never saw Bonafed act inappropriately with anyone while he was pastor there. A mother of three, she has no tolerance for the abuse of children, but she can’t imagine Bonafed doing anything like that.
“He was a very compassionate person,” she said.
Likewise, Arlene Bell, 73, of Delmont, said, “I’m all for going after predators. … It’s pervasive in our society, and it needs to end. What happens in these cases, a lot of times innocent people end up getting hurt.”
Bell attends St. Mary, and her husband, Lemuel, is a lector there. She said Bonafed was assiduous about making sure that all church workers and volunteers were fingerprinted and received background checks.
She said Bonafed worked to bring the two parishes — St. Mary and St. John — together. “Attendance at both of these churches went way up when he was here because of the way he gave his homilies,” she said. “We’ve been here through a bunch of priests, and Father Joe was wonderful.”
DeCarlo-Parrendo said she last heard Bonafed preach Sunday at Holy Family in West Newton, where he addressed the sexual abuse crisis in his homily.
“He said this is really serious, what we’re dealing with. He said it’s not going to go away quickly. We have a lot of damage repair to do, and staying away is not the way to deal with it,” she recalled. “He said, ‘You need to fix it, I need to fix it, we all have to do better.’”
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter @shuba_trib.