Priest's Removal Atypical
It Was the Vatican's Decision to Remove Admitted Molester Albert M. Liberatore Jr.

By Dave Janoski
The Times Leader [Scranton PA]
July 28, 2006

[For more information on Liberatore, see The Sins of Our Fathers, by Dave Janoski, Times Leader (7/9/06).]

The Vatican's decision to remove admitted child molester Albert M. Liberatore Jr. from the priesthood is a rare and severe punishment for the former Duryea pastor, a step one church observer said is "analogous to the death penalty."

Liberatore is serving 10 years' probation for sexually abusing a teenage boy from 1999 through 2004, beginning when the boy was 13. The victim has sued Liberatore and officials from the Scranton Diocese in federal court, alleging the diocese was aware of abuse allegations against Liberatore in 2000, but took no meaningful action until 2004.

Liberatore's removal or "laicization," is a "fairly rare step" usually "reserved for the most serious and most egregious violations," said John L. Allen Jr., senior correspondent in Rome for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newsweekly sold in 96 countries. "It's the supreme penalty under canon law. It's fairly rarely invoked."

Only 72 of the 2,902 priests accused of sexual abuse listed in an online database maintained by the independent, nonprofit group have been laicized. All but 11 of the laicizations occurred after American bishops set up new, stricter guidelines for handling such allegations in 2002.

About 4,400 Roman Catholic priests in the United States were accused of sexual misconduct between 1950 and 2002, according to a study based on diocesan reports and commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But the number of priests laicized is "in the dozens, rather than the hundreds or thousands" Allen said.

At least 25 priests in the Scranton Diocese have been accused of sexual misconduct involving minors since 1950, but it appears none had been removed from the priesthood before Liberatore. Since 2002, at least 11 local priests have been removed from ministry barred from saying Mass or wearing clerical garb in public for alleged sexual misconduct. While they have no diocesan assignments, they technically remain priests, answerable to their bishop.

Diocesan spokesman William Genello did not return e-mail and phone messages seeking comment on the Liberatore matter Thursday.

Liberatore's removal was announced in an official notice in the latest edition of The Catholic Light, a diocesan newspaper published every three weeks. Signed by Chancellor James Earley, the notice said the action was "in response to a finding of sexual misconduct involving a minor" and "for the good of the Church."

Liberatore, 42, is the former pastor at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Duryea. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Only the Vatican can remove someone from the priesthood. Under guidelines adopted in 2002, abuse allegations against a priest must be brought before a diocesan review board composed mostly of lay Catholics. If the board finds the allegations credible, the priest is suspended and the case is forwarded to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.

The congregation, composed of 23 cardinals, archbishops and bishops, hears evidence and then decides whether to reinstate the priest, order a church trial in the priest's home country, order the priest's bishop to remove him from ministry or recommend that the pope laicize the priest.

The last "requires a personal act of the pope," Allen said. "When the pope does it, it is final and unappealable."

Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school in California, who has written two books on abuse by priests, says laicization is often reserved for accused priests who refuse to submit to church discipline.

"Even priests who misbehave in significant ways may still remain as priests. They cannot say Mass in public or wear clerical garb in public. They're still priests, but they're living in a controlled environment.

"Usually you see (laicization) when someone happens to be non-compliant.... when something is so egregious the church feels they can't handle this person."

It's unclear what effect Liberatore's removal will have on the civil suit against him and the diocese, which is scheduled to go to trial in March.

Neither Liberatore's attorney nor the diocese's returned phone messages Thursday.

TO LEARN MORE Documents, articles and other data on the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church can be found at

The Catholic Light: The Scranton Diocese’s newspaper can be found online at

National Catholic Reporter: The newsweekly’s Web site is at

Times Leader Associate Editor/Investigative Dave Janoski can be reached at 829-7255.


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