January 08, 2005

Judge to decide priest's competency


Author: Ben Conery

WATERBURY A judge next month will determine whether a Waterbury priest, who once taught at Sacred Heart High School and served as the city's police chaplain, is competent to face charges he molested a boy in Massachusetts nearly 20 years ago.

The Rev. John J. Szantyr, 73, of 55 Birch Place, faces charges of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14. The alleged abuse occurred between Jan. 1, 1986, and Dec. 12, 1987, according to court documents. During that time, Szantyr was a priest at Our Lady of Czestchowa Parish in Worcester, Mass.

A competency hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 17 in Central District Court in Worcester. It is unclear what condition would make Szantyr unfit to stand trial, but he said Wednesday night that he has Parkinson's Disease.

A spokesman for the Worcester Diocese said Szantyr was removed from the diocese in January 1988, but said he did not have any further information regarding Szantyr's removal.

"He would not have had credentials, or what are called faculties, since January '88 to be in any public ministry," said Raymond Delisle, spokesman for the Worcester Diocese.

The Worcester Telegram & Gazette newspaper reported Szantyr left the parish after Worcester police were notified he may have molested a boy in the church. A man claiming his son was victimized told the newspaper that Szantyr started an alter boy society shortly after arriving at the parish and that his son was in it.

It was unclear why there was a 17-year lapse between the time of the alleged abuse and the charge filed against Szantyr in 2003. Court records, including the victim's name, are sealed and Worcester County District Attorney John J. Conte's office released little information about the case.

Conte told the Telegram & Gazette in 2002 that when the alleged abuse was first reported, the parents of an alleged victim were divorcing. The parents disagreed over whether to press charges. The boy's father told the newspaper that church officials dissuaded him from pressing charges by saying his son might be shamed and stigmatized. Church officials, including the bishop of the diocese, said Szantyr was removed and would have no more contact with children, the father told police.

The Worcester Diocese has been plagued in recent years with accusations of sexual misconduct by priests.

The Rev. Joseph Looney, pastor at St. Margaret's Catholic Church in Waterbury, said Szantyr has been living in Waterbury since he came back from Worcester. The statute of limitations on the charges against Szantyr did not expire because he left Massachusetts.

"He is absolutely crushed by this situation," Looney said. "This hit him like a ton of bricks and really sent him into a tail spin.

"It's just hard for me to imagine they'd be true," Looney said of the accusations against Szantyr.

Looney said Szantyr is a gifted musician who would play the piano at weekly fraternity of priest meetings. But since Szantyr was charged with child molestation, he's stopped attending the meetings, Looney said.

Szantyr said Wednesday night his illness prevented him from speaking with a reporter. His lawyer, Edward P. Ryan Jr., could not be reached for comment.

Born in Waterbury, Szantyr graduated from Sacred Heart High School and was ordained in 1957. He is a member of Marians of the Immaculate Conception order. He was first stationed in Stockbridge, Mass., and in 1972, he moved to Sacred Heart High School, where he became head of the department of religion.

Former Mayor Edward D. Bergin named Szantyr, a close friend, police chaplain in 1976. A newspaper report from the time called Szantyr "a close friend of the Bergin family for many years" and the "unofficial chaplain of various Bergin campaign functions." Szantyr was at the center of a political controversy during the 1977 mayoral election because of a song he wrote for Bergin, a Democrat, that leaders of the Republican Party called demeaning to Italian-Americans.

Bergin said Wednesday he didn't know Szantyr faced any accusations. "I haven't seen him," he said.

Szantyr left Waterbury in 1980, but is not clear why.

"To my knowledge there was never any problem," Bergin said. "If there was a problem, obviously, it would have been known by everybody."

Delisle, the Worcester Diocese spokesman, said he didn't know why Szantyr came to the diocese. A spokesman from the Archdiocese of Hartford said there is no record of Szantyr having ever worked in the diocese, and suggested Szantyr may have been hired directly by Sacred Heart High School.

Father John Blanchfield, the former principal of Sacred Heart High School, couldn't be reached for comment. A spokesperson from the Marian order could not be reached for comment.

After arriving in the Worcester Diocese, Szantyr also served at Our Lady of Immaculate Parish in Athol, Mass.

Posted by kshaw at January 8, 2005 09:58 AM