‘Church is no longer a safe place:’ State prison for local priest in indecent assault of girl

‘Church is no longer a safe place:’ State prison for local priest in indecent assault of girl
By Sarah Cassi
https://www.lehighvalleylive.com/allentown/2020/02/church-is-no-longer-a-safe-place-state-prison-for-priest-in-indecent-assault-of-girl.html

Kevin Lonergan, center, seen here on June 8, 2014, as he celebrated his first mass at St. Patrick’s Church in Pottsville, Pa.Andy Matsko/The Republican-Herald via AP | For lehighvalleylive.com

A former Allentown priest was sentenced Monday to state prison for the indecent assault of a girl he met through his city parish.

Lehigh County Judge Maria Dantos noted it was a maximum sentence of one to two years in state prison for 31-year-old Kevin Lonergan, who has been free on bail in the case since he was charged.

Lonergan pleaded guilty in November to indecent assault of the girl, who was 17 at the time.

In addition to commending the bravery of the teen girl who came forward, Dantos took note of a prior accusation against Lonergan in another county.

In that incident, Lonergan was accused of molesting a 15-year-old girl, Chief Deputy District Attorney Matt Falk said. But the girl and her family did not cooperate with an investigation and the case stalled, Falk said during Monday’s hearing.

Lonergan was transferred to Allentown, a practice Dantos railed against as she hit her bench in the courtroom.

The Catholic church’s practice of transferring priests accused of misconduct came to light in the 1980s and continues more than three decades later, the judge said.

“There’s plenty of blame to go around, most of it on your shoulders,” the judge said to Lonergan.

The diocese in a prepared statement disputed Dantos’ characterization of what happened with the previous allegation.

“Regarding statements made in court, it is not accurate to say that the Diocese improperly transferred a priest who had committed an offense. Father Lonergan received a new assignment in 2016 only after Northampton County Children and Youth determined that the accusation was unfounded,” the statement said. “The Diocese took immediate action upon receiving the information on this previous allegation. Father Lonergan was forbidden from ministry, and the Diocese reported the allegation to law enforcement under its zero tolerance policy.”

The victim and her parents described a life of service to the Catholic church, and how the community built around their faith made the church a constant in their lives.

The victim described the rage she felt and the sleepless nights after the incidents with Lonergan, and the repercussions she and her family have dealt with since she reported the crime to authorities.

In one instance, a relative of Lonergan’s contacted the victim through social media, and offered her money to drop the case.

“I can feel your strength. Sometimes that’s not always an easy burden to bear, to be strong,” the judge said.

The victim’s mother and father described their devout faith, of raising their daughter in a church and community they trusted, and how church became a place of good memories and comfort.

“Church is no longer a safe place,” the victim’s mother said, adding that Mass is torturous for her and she cannot walk into a church without crying. “Kevin Lonergan’s actions have taken away my sense of security, my belief system.”

Since the charges were filed, the family has been isolated, and did not hear from their fellow parishioners or any priests.

“The church that we so believed in abandoned us,” the mother said.

Lonergan was assigned to St. Francis of Assisi Church on 11th Street in Allentown, when he met the accuser in August 2017.

He got her cellphone number from another member of the church and communicated with her, mostly via Snapchat, through January 2018, the district attorney previously said. The messages included nude photos of Lonergan and one video, Dantos said.

In February 2018, Lonergan hugged the victim at church — she attempted to pull away, but he pulled her closer and grabbed her rear over her clothes, prosecutors said.

After the victim told another priest of the assault in June 2018, the diocese reported it to the DA’s office and Lonergan was immediately suspended from public ministry.

A family friend of Lonergan’s spoke of Lonergan “humbling” himself to work at his Pottsville auto dealership. When the man said the accusations against Lonergan didn’t seem to fit, the judge stopped him.

Dantos said Lonergan pleaded guilty, and that the presumption of innocence was gone. She then told the man to take a seat, and none of the other supporters in the audience spoke.

Lonergan, in his statement to the court, did say he was guilty, of the crime, of stealing the victim’s dignity, and of the pain suffered by his family.

Lonergan asked for forgiveness, and said he would “never forgive myself for what I have done.”

Lonergan was a priest for five years, and was previously assigned to St. Jane Frances de Chantal in Palmer Township from June 2014 to May 2016. Monsignor Stephen Radocha previously said there were no credible allegations made against Lonergan while he was assigned to St. Jane’s.

A concern was raised about him in 2016 by a third party, but Northampton County Children and Youth investigated and determined that concern to be unfounded, the monsignor said.

“The Diocese offers its heartfelt prayers to the victim, to her family, and to everyone who was hurt as the result of Father Lonergan’s actions,” the Diocese of Allentown said in a released statement. “From the beginning of this case, the Diocese followed its protocols to the letter, and will continue to do so. Bishop Alfred Schlert removed Father Lonergan from ministry and immediately notified law enforcement on the day the allegations were made.”

Lonergan will not return to ministry. Now that the criminal case is finished, the diocese will submit the case to the Vatican.

After the hearing, and asked about a possible appeal, defense attorney Eric Prock said he still needs to discuss possible next steps with his client, but that all options are on the table.

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