Somerset County priest found guilty of sexually abusing three Honduran orphans
A Somerset County priest was found guilty Tuesday of having sex with three boys at a Honduran orphanage that he supported through his nonprofit foundation, transferring money outside the United States to fund his illicit activities and having pornographic photos of children.
The Rev. Joseph D. Maurizio Jr., 70, showed no reaction when the verdict was read in a federal courtroom in Johnstown.
Maurizio’s two sisters and two nieces, who attended every day of the trial, sat in the courtroom with parishioners of his former parish, Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Central City.
The women gasped as the verdicts were read, then wept.
Jurors deliberated for more than 12 hours over two days and found Maurizio guilty of five of the eight counts against him. Two counts involving the money transfer were dismissed.
Maurizio had pleaded not guilty and did not testify during the seven-day trial.
Maurizio could be sentenced to a maximum of 130 years in prison — a potential maximum penalty of 10 years for the child pornography charge, and up to 30 years each of the other four charges.
During closing arguments on Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Haines said Maurizio had gotten away “with horrific crimes against children for over a decade.”
Hanes said evidence proved “Father Joe” used thousands of dollars from his charity, Human Interfaith Ministries, to fund his twice-yearly trips to the mission and to pay boys he molested or had sex with.
Maurizio’s attorney, Steven Passarello of Altoona, told jurors that when the Department of Homeland Security picked up the case in 2014, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had looked at “the exact, same evidence in 2009” and dropped the case.
He lauded Maurizio’s 28 years as a priest and his service in the Navy during the Vietnam War.
Passarello pointed out that one alleged victim, now 24, recanted on the witness stand and told jurors that federal investigators pressured him into saying Maurizio abused him.
“He told you he came here to tell you the truth,” the attorney said. “His words were that, ‘Before God’s eyes, I’m telling you truth.’ ”
Maurizio’s three accusers and a witness who traveled from the impoverished Central American country to testify for the government were brought into the courtroom to hear the verdict.
They showed no emotion as their interpreter whispered to them in Spanish when the verdict was read.
The priest’s supporters were “obviously disappointed,” one parishioner said as she left the courthouse.
“We stood by him for months, and we’ll still stand by him,” she said, declining to give her name.
Maurizio’s family and his attorney left the courtroom through a side door and avoided reporters.
Elizabeth Williams traveled from Virginia to hear the verdict. She was president of ProNino USA, the nonprofit that operated the orphanage, from 2002 to 2011.
“We’re very pleased” Williams said, calling the verdict a validation of the Honduran boys’ complaints against Maurizio. “It sends a clear message that you can’t cross the U.S. border to molest children.”
John Kelleghan is special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations Philadelphia, which interviewed the witnesses in Honduras.
“What Maurizio did to the children in Honduras while swindling unsuspecting Americans for money to support his pedophilia is atrocious,” Kelleghan wrote in a statement. “The jury’s verdict is testament that society will not tolerate this behavior, and HSI will continue … to bring American child predators to justice — no matter where they commit their crimes.”
“We remain steadfast in our commitment to protect children from predators here and pursue those who travel beyond our borders to offend,” U.S. Attorney David Hickton said. “We are especially vigilant where a person uses a position of trust to victimize the most vulnerable among us.”
“Today I was informed of the jury’s verdict in the criminal trial of Father Joseph Maurizio,” said the Rev. Mark L. Bartchak, bishop of the Altoona-Johnstown diocese. “I preliminarily removed Father Maurizio from his duties in September 2014. As Bishop, I will continue to work to ensure that the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown takes the action necessary to protect children from harm in the Church.”
U.S. District Court Judge Kim R. Gibson set sentencing for Feb. 16.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or [email protected].