DOVER, Del. – Delaware prosecutors for the first time have brought criminal child molestation charges against a Catholic priest.
An indictment issued by a grand jury Monday charges 76-year-old John A. Sarro with first-degree unlawful sexual intercourse and second-degree unlawful sexual contact.
The charges involve a girl who was under the age of 16. Sarro is accused of fondling her sometime between September 1991 and August 1992 by touching her breasts. Prosecutors allege he later had oral sex with the girl between July 1993 and July 1994.
Sarro was one of several priests, both living and dead, about whom the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington disclosed in 2006 that it had received admitted, corroborated or otherwise substantiated allegations of sexual abuse.
In 2011, after seeking bankruptcy protection amid widespread allegations of child sex abuse by priests, the diocese agreed to pay more than $70 million in a settlement with nearly 150 alleged victims of sexual abuse.
But until now, no accused priest has faced criminal charges.
Sarro's indictment appears to be based on a change in Delaware's criminal code several years ago.
While the code states that prosecutions for most felonies must be commenced within 5 years, lawmakers approved a provision in 2003 allowing the prosecution for certain child sex offenses to be commenced "at any time." The provision applied to all causes of action arising before, on or after July 15, 1992, the year that the statute of limitations had originally been expanded.
Prior to 2003, prosecutions for sexual offenses could be started either before the statute of limitations expired or, if that time had expired, within two years after the initial disclosure of the crime to authorities. The change in the law eliminated the statute of limitations altogether.
"This is totally unprecedented for Delaware," Thomas Neuberger, an attorney who represented several alleged victims in the diocese bankruptcy case, said of the criminal charges against Sarro.
Neither Neuberger nor Bart Dalton, another lawyer involved in the diocese case, could recall Sarro's name ever coming up, or any accusations against him by their clients.
"We never had anybody complain about Sarro," Neuberger said, noting that his clients did include those who attended the same parish where Sarro worked.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the diocese said that in 2011, an individual reported abuse by Sarro at St. Helena Parish in Wilmington in the early 1990s. The diocese says it asked the individual for permission to report the abuse to law enforcement. The individual declined.
Diocesan officials said they were first made aware of alleged sex abuse by Sarro in 1997. He was then removed from ministry, prohibited from celebrating the sacraments in public, and barred from presenting himself as a Catholic priest. Church officials say the alleged abuse took place in the 1980s in Papua, New Guinea, where Sarro served as a missionary priest.
The bishop of the diocese applied to the Vatican for Sarro's laicization in 2009 but that request was not approved.
It was not immediately clear whether Sarro has a lawyer.
Court records indicate that a fugitive warrant for Sarro, who lives in Elkton, Maryland, was issued Dec. 21.
Maryland court records indicate that Sarro appeared in Cecil County District Court on Dec. 22 and was released that same day after posting $2,500 cash bail. Sarro, who declined to waive extradition, is scheduled for arraignment Feb. 9.
Sarro did not immediately return a phone message left for him Thursday at the assisted living facility in Elkton where he lives.
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com