Priest convicted of sexually assaulting children in Honduras won't get new trial

Rev. Joseph Maurizio on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, at U.S. District Federal Court in Johnstown, Pa.

Rev. Joseph Maurizio on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, at U.S. District Federal Court in Johnstown, Pa.  (ap)

A 70-year-old priest convicted of sexually assaulting poor children during his missionary trips to Honduras won’t get a new trial as he had hoped, arguing that federal prosecutors wrongly withheld evidence in his case.

U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson rejected Monday the appeal by Rev. Joseph Maurizio, who was convicted in a sexual tourism case in September. The judge found that while an accuser wrongfully withheld evidence, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the trial.

"Given the substantial evidence that exists in this case ... the court finds it unlikely that a jury at a second trial would acquit defendant," Gibson, who held a hearing on the case last week, wrote in the ruling.

The appeal concerned a statement given by one of the accusers who told investigators he wasn't "abused" by the priest.

The boy told a federal investigator that some others "think badly of me" because of his contact with Maurizio, before adding, "Perhaps they think he really abused me, but that was not the case."

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But Gibson agreed with Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Larson, who argued the boy's use of the word "abuse" referred to one act and not to other abuse the priest was accused of committing.

The judge agreed with the prosecutor that the boy later clarified his statement to investigators, confirming the priest fondled him, which Larson said was consistent with his trial testimony.

By rejecting Maurizio’s appeal, Gibson has now cleared the way for him to be sentenced on March 2, barring further appeals.

Defense attorney Steven Passarello argued he could have used the statement to cross-examine the boy, which he opted not to do absent the statement, and the priest deserved a new trial as a result.

Passarello said he's unsure whether he'll appeal or ask the judge to delay the priest's sentencing until another appeal plays out. But the defense attorney said he was "very disappointed" in the ruling and puzzled that the judge agreed with the defense on so much but still refused to grant the new trial.

The judge agreed with Passarello that the statement favored the defense, could have been used to impeach the accuser, was wrongly withheld by prosecutors and was relevant to whether the priest was guilty or innocent.

Passarello said that, based on those findings, "I thought the ending of the opinion would be different."

But the judge said the rest of the evidence, including testimony that another boy witnessed the fondling, was strong enough to warrant conviction.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown suspended Maurizio after federal prosecutors filed charges in September 2014.

Prosecutors contend Maurizio used a self-run Johnstown-based charity to travel to an orphanage for several years ending in 2009. They said Maurizio promised candy and cash to three boys to watch them shower, perform sex acts or fondle them.

Maurizio last served at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Central City, about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. He maintains his innocence and has been looking to hire a public relations firm to tell his story.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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