Somerset County priest indicted on child-sex charges related to Honduras orphanage work
A federal grand jury has indicted a Somerset County priest on charges he traveled to Honduras to have sex with a minor boy, but his attorney contends the five-year-old allegations of sex tourism are unfounded.
The indictment against the Rev. Joseph Maurizio Jr., who was arrested Sept. 25 on similar allegations involving teenage boys at a Honduran orphanage, was handed down Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Johnstown. It charges Maurizio, 69, with engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places and possession of material depicting the sexual exploitation of a minor.
Maurizio has been in the Cambria County jail under federal detention since his arrest, which was initially based only on a criminal complaint lodged against him.
Federal prosecutors had 30 days to file a grand jury indictment, which establishes probable cause.
The indictment accuses Maurizio of traveling to Honduras between Feb. 26 and March 13, 2009 to have sex with an underage boy, identified as Minor No. 1. It alleges he had at least one image of child pornography in his possession on Sept. 12, the same day federal agents executed search warrants at his Windber home and his parish rectory at Our Lady Queen of Angels in nearby Central City.
Prosecutors are seeking forfeiture of three passports and numerous storage devices Maurizio allegedly used to commit the crimes, including a laptop, four desktop computers, a cellphone, a camera, three thumb drives, 247 CDs and DVDs, a dozen VHS tapes and 12 movie film rolls.
The indictment follows a series of motions in which Maurizio's attorney, Steven Passarello of Altoona, sought his release from federal detention, partly on the grounds the priest was not under indictment.
Passarello on Wednesday maintained Maurizio's innocence, pointing out that despite U.S. and Honduran investigations into the allegations when they first surfaced in 2009, charges were not immediately filed.
Passarello said Honduran children in 2009 told Maurizio's defense team the allegations were false.
In a criminal complaint unsealed Sept. 25, federal officials said the priest, under the guise of doing relief work through a self-run charity based in Johnstown, Humanitarian Interfaith Ministries, visited the orphanage at various times between 1999 and 2009, promising candy and cash to orphaned boys to watch them shower, have sex or fondle them.
The orphanage conducted an internal investigation when a staff member in 2009 overheard boys arguing over whether or not to report “Father Joe” had solicited them for sexual favors, according to the complaint.
When he was confronted, Maurizio threatened to cut off funding to the orphanage, according to the complaint. Passarello said the opposite occurred, with the allegations concocted after Maurizio withdrew funding during a battle for control of the orphanage.
Steven Beer, a former board member for ProNino USA, which operates the orphanage, said the nonprofit reported the allegations in 2009 to the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, the FBI and the state Attorney General's Office.
The diocese told ProNino it could do nothing, Beer said, unless the alleged child victims were brought to the U.S. to testify before its five-member Allegation Review Board.
The diocese has declined comment on the case since Maurizio's arrest. On Sept. 29, Bishop Mark L. Bartchak told parishioners he is not permitted to talk about it.
The diocese's Allegation Review Board was never apprised of the allegations, according to one of its members, D.J. Bragonier, and Maurizio remained in place as pastor at the Central City church until his September suspension.
The criminal charges were filed five years after the initial allegations in 2009, nine months after a ProNino board member in December 2013 sent an email complaining of the investigation's slow progress to a website that tracks sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church, bishop-accountability.org.
The state Attorney General's Office said it had no record of the allegations, nor did the office of Gov. Tom Corbett, who was attorney general in 2009.
The FBI said it initiated an investigation, then turned it over to Homeland Security this year.
Maurizio is to be arraigned on the charges 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in federal court in Johnstown.
Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or [email protected].