Convicted Somerset County priest seeks public relations help
A Somerset County priest awaiting sentencing on charges he traveled overseas to molest orphaned boys maintains his innocence and is soliciting public relations firms to tell his story, drawing the ire of a national support group for clergy-abuse survivors.
The Rev. Joseph D. Maurizio Jr., 70, is to be sentenced in February on federal charges he used a self-run charity based in Johnstown — Humanitarian Interfaith Ministries — to visit a Honduran orphanage numerous times between 1999 and 2009, promising candy and cash to boys to watch them shower, have sex or fondle them.
His attorney, Steven Passarello of Altoona, on Wednesday confirmed Maurizio is seeking help from public relations firms.
In September, Maurizio was convicted of engaging or attempting to engage in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places, possessing child pornography and money laundering.
“He is desirous of getting his side of the story out because he has maintained his innocence throughout, notwithstanding the jury's verdict, but believes he was wrongfully convicted,” Passarello said.
Citing an article on Maurizio's efforts that appeared Tuesday in the online trade publication www.everything-pr.com, the director of St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, urged public relations firms to refuse to help.
“A convicted predator priest is apparently hiring a public relations firm in advance of his sentencing,” David Clohessy said in a statement. “We hope his bishop prevents him from doing this or that no firm accepts his offer.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown suspended Maurizio in September 2014 after federal prosecutors filed charges. Tony DeGol, diocesan spokesman, said Maurizio remains suspended from public ministry. He declined additional comment.
In a five-page letter to unidentified public relations firms obtained by the Tribune-Review, Passarello describes Maurizio as “an American political prisoner” whose “civil rights as an American citizen have been violated by multiple international government agencies.”
The letter notes the former pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Central City “is ready, willing and able” to retain the services of a firm to “help in getting his story out to the public.”
Maurizio is to be sentenced on Feb. 2.
“We hope it's a harsh one that will keep him away from kids for years to come,” Clohessy said in SNAP's statement. “But between now and then, he hopes to hire spin doctors who can help him duck and dodge and deny responsibility for his heinous crimes. We hope he fails.”
Maurizio pleaded not guilty and did not testify during his 10-day trial in Johnstown.
Passarello's letter points out that one of the alleged victims, who recanted his story, testified during the trial that he “was forced into a false confession” during a discussion with a forensic interviewer because “he had no money, had not eaten and was scared and wanted to leave.”
Pornographic images that became part of the case consisted of two photos of a naked disabled boy, now deceased, who shunned clothing “because it irritated his body,” according to Passarello's letter.
“It was the defense's position that these two photos were nothing more than one might see in National Geographic and were only taken to show the extreme poverty and life that these Hondurans were leading,” Passarello said in the letter.
Passarello on Wednesday said the letter reiterates the defenses Maurizio has raised since the allegations surfaced.
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of bishopaccountability.org, said she is aware of other accused or convicted priests who started campaigns to clear their names, but none sought help from a professional firm, to her knowledge.
“I've never heard of one hiring a PR firm,” Barrett Doyle said. “It's quite unusual.”
Maurizio is in the Cambria County Prison, where he has been held on a federal detainer since his Sept. 25, 2014, arrest.
Liz Zemba is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-601-2166 or [email protected].