PROVIDENCE — A former priest on the Diocese of Providence’s list of “credibly accused” clergy was charged Thursday with molesting three boys while serving at a parish in Woonsocket in the 1980s.
The indictment of the former Reverend John Petrocelli is the first criminal case brought by the attorney general’s office in a review of more than 70 years of files of childhood sexual abuse cases kept by the diocese. This case focuses on the time when Petrocelli was an assistant pastor at Holy Family Parish in Woonsocket, and alleges that he sexually abused the three boys sometime between Nov. 6, 1981 and Oct. 3, 1990.
“There is nothing more critical to the mission of my office than to deliver justice on behalf of victims and of the people of Rhode Island, regardless of the time that has passed after the alleged offense,” said Attorney General Peter Neronha in a statement. “Our ongoing review of alleged misconduct by clergy in Rhode Island is intended to achieve that result wherever possible.”
Providence lawyer Timothy Conlon, who has sued the diocese and Petrocelli on behalf of two men who said the priest molested them as boys, said the news of the arrest “was gratifying” for them.
Conlon said the two men had cooperated with the investigation by the State Police and attorney general’s office, though it’s not known whether they are among the three victims in the indictment. It was hard to reopen old wounds, Conlon said, but they felt like they were being heard at last.
“You’re talking about someone who had something that should never happen to them as a child, and when they did come forward [years ago], no one did anything. They lived with the fact that their accusations were not acted upon,” Conlon said.
“It’s gratifying to see that, Oh, my God, he’s not going to get away with it,” he added. “The possibility of seeing justice done is very comforting for them. At long last, it’s being taken seriously.”
Petrocelli was a hospital chaplain in 2002, when the diocese said it received complaints about him and removed him from the ministry.
The following year, a man sued the diocese, saying that Petrocelli had molested him when he was a child at the Woonsocket parish in the 1980s. The diocese eventually settled the case in 2008 and Petrocelli was “granted retirement” in 2012.
Then, there were more allegations.
Another man who alleged that Petrocelli abused him as a child sued the diocese last year, alleging that the church hierarchy also acted as a perpetrator that enabled the abuse. The lawsuit was dismissed by a superior court judge last month.
The diocese said in a statement Thursday that its Office of Compliance had recently received allegations against Petrocelli and reported them to law enforcement. The diocese said it also reported allegations to law enforcement in 2002, but it’s unclear whether there was any criminal investigation.
Conlon represented both men in their lawsuits against the diocese and Petrocelli, as well as multiple other victims of clergy abuse. “If you were truly looking at an investigation, it would be criminal,” Conlon said. “But they were not building an investigation; it was to protect the Diocese.”
He said he has seen cases where parents and children complained about clergy sexual abuse, but the diocese investigator characterized the behavior as “horseplay.”
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office declined comment on the specifics of the Petrocelli investigation and whether law enforcement had reviewed past allegations against him.
Since July 2019, the attorney general’s office has been reviewing allegations of clergy child sexual abuse and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence’s handling of such allegations, going back to 1950.
Petrocelli was indicted Monday by a statewide grand jury of three counts of first-degree child molestation and nine counts of second-degree child molestation. The secret indictment was unsealed Thursday and Petrocelli was arraigned at Superior Court. A judge set bail at $50,000 with surety and ordered him not to have any contact with the alleged victims or minors under the age of 16.
Petrocelli had been in the ministry for 30 years until he was removed by the diocese. He served at St. Ann’s Church in Providence from 1971 to 1976; the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence from 1976 to 1981; Holy Family in Woonsocket from 1981 to 1990; Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence from 1990 to 1994; and St. Joseph Hospital in Providence from 1994 until he was removed from the ministry in response to complaints in 2002.