St. Leo priest faces abuse allegation

Pastor of Little Italy church is removed

November 19, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN REPORTER

A popular priest has been removed as pastor of St. Leo Roman Catholic Church, the cornerstone of Baltimore's Little Italy neighborhood, because of an allegation that he sexually abused a teenage boy at a parish in Brooklyn, N.Y., more than 30 years ago.

The Rev. Michael Salerno, who parishioners said has revived St. Leo's during his 10 years as pastor, neither admitted nor denied that the abuse had taken place, according to a statement read by the Rev. Peter Sticco at a parish meeting yesterday.

Some in the crowd gasped as they heard Salerno's name. Some began to cry, and a few walked out after listening to Sticco.

Salerno has not been defrocked but cannot celebrate Mass publicly or otherwise serve as a priest while the church investigates. He is not facing criminal charges, but the allegation has been reported to civil authorities in New York, said Sticco, the provincial leader of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate, a South Orange, N.J.-based religious order also known as the Pallottines, which staffs St. Leo's.

Salerno, 61, joined the Pallottines as a brother - a lay member who has taken vows, not a priest - in 1968. He served at two Brooklyn, N.Y., parishes and one on Long Island as a brother. He also worked at a Catholic high school in New Jersey and a Brooklyn homeless shelter before he was ordained in 1993. Salerno was appointed pastor of St. Leo's four years later.

Sticco and archdiocese officials did not name the accuser. The man contacted his home diocese last week to report the abuse, which he said took place at All Saints Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn when he was a young teen, Sticco said. Salerno had served there from 1971 to 1978 as a brother.

That diocese contacted the Diocese of Brooklyn, which informed officials at the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Pallottines. The accuser and Salerno are receiving counseling.

Sticco could not estimate how long the investigation would take because Vatican officials will have to weigh in; nor would he elaborate on the nature of the abuse.

Salerno is cooperating with the investigation and has expressed concern for the church members, Sticco said.

"His expectation is that the parish would come together during this difficult time because it is such a strong community of faith," he said.

Salerno is the second priest removed from his parish since the installation of Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien last month. A Locust Point priest, the Rev. Ray Martin, was punished because the archdiocese said he violated employment policies and church teaching about participation of non-Catholics in Catholic Masses.

Salerno, a native of New York, has been praised for restoring St. Leo parish by counteracting declining Mass attendance that has driven others to close.

St. Leo's, like many Baltimore parishes, was once at the center of an ethnic enclave. It was the spiritual home of the D'Alesandro clan, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Salerno persuaded some people to convert to Catholicism and drew others from surrounding counties who had moved from the city or who were attracted to his folksy, down-to-earth manner, according to a 2002 Sun profile.

Now, nearly 800 families are registered as members, and weekend services in the brick church's restored sanctuary can be standing-room-only.

Some parishioners at the meeting yesterday said that they didn't believe the accusation and continue to support Salerno.

"You'll hear people say they'll do anything for Father Mike," said Sadie Zaccari Witz, whose father was baptized at St. Leo's. The Catonsville resident became a parishioner eight years ago after reading about Salerno in the newspaper, and she volunteers at the church nearly every other day.

"We all love him. We will support him to the fullest," Witz said, wiping away tears.

"My heart goes out to Father Mike," said Fran Brooks. She and her husband, Dennis, attended a Christmas Mass at St. Leo's six years ago and have traveled from Hunt Valley for services ever since.

The Rev. Frank Donio will assist with duties at St. Leo's during the investigation, Sticco said. At the meeting, Sticco called for any victims of abuse to come forward, as well as for prayers for Salerno, the accuser and others affected.

Parishioners asked how they could contact Salerno. Sticco said they could send cards and letters to him through St. Leo's. One woman asked whether he could return to the parish, even if the accusation proves true.

Another woman corrected Sticco when he referred to "the victim," interjecting "alleged victim." A man asked whether the accuser was "gainfully employed, and has he made a demand for money?"

"The victim has only asked for counseling help, that's all," Sticco said.

Jeff Anderson, a civil attorney in St. Paul, Minn., who has represented clergy abuse victims around the country for 24 years, said in an interview that under New York's statute of limitations, most accusers who are now older than 19 or 20 can't pursue criminal charges or civil suits.

"We continue to see allegations come forth on a very regular basis," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests.

"The sad truth is that no matter how much national publicity there is to this issue, victims have a long, tough struggle before they can reach the point of being strong enough to come forward," he said.

Preliminary findings of a study of sex abuse by Catholic clergy, released last week in Baltimore at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting, suggests that abuse by clergy parallels the rise in abuse reports among the general population.

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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