Monday, February 14, 2011

Priest Guilty of Child Rape, Faces Life in Prison

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Conor Berry, Berkshire Eagle
Posted: 02/13/2011 10:53:34 AM EST

PITTSFIELD, Mass. -- Thursday was judgment day for Gary Mercure, the former New York Catholic priest who could spend the rest of his life in prison for raping two altar boys in the Berkshires.

It took less than two hours for a Berkshire Superior Court jury to convict the 62-year-old priest on three counts of forcible child rape and one count of indecent assault and battery on a child younger than 14.

The charges stem from separate crimes committed by Mercure in 1986 and 1989, when he raped altar boys from his former Catholic church in Queensbury, N.Y., during day trips to the Berkshires.

Mercure didn't flinch as Superior Court Clerk Deborah S. Capeless read aloud each of the four guilty verdicts, one after the next. Court Officer Paul Duma placed handcuffs on the fallen priest and took him into custody.

Judge John A. Agostini ordered the Troy, N.Y., clergyman to be held without bail at the Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction until he is sentenced Wednesday at 2 p.m.

Mercure, a small, dapper man with graying hair, smiled at his crying sister as he was led away in handcuffs.

Defense Attorney Michael O. Jennings, of Springfield, had little to say about his client or the case while exiting the courtroom with co-counsel Robert DeLong, of Monson.

Mercure, who was permanently removed from ministry in New York in 2008 but technically remains a priest, plans to challenge the conviction. "There will be an appeal," Jennings said.

The trial began smoothly on Jan. 31, but was delayed by winter weather and the dismissal of a juror for posting a comment on Twitter that the judge said violated juror silence in the case.

Several of the priest's victims were present when Thursday's guilty verdicts were handed down. Afterward, one victim wiped tears from his eyes while making a call on his cell phone, while others embraced Berkshire First Assistant District Attorney Paul J. Caccaviello and Assistant District Attorney Marianne Shelvey, the prosecutors who tried the case.

The victims were escorted from the Pittsfield courthouse by plainclothes Massachusetts State Police troopers and court officers, who prevented members of the media from approaching them. Caccaviello said the victims didn't wish to speak with the reporters who crowded the courthouse hallway with television cameras and microphones. "They're still processing this," he said.

Caccaviello said Mercure's conviction should bring some closure to the victims, who remained mum about the abuse for more than 20 years. "We're very gratified for that verdict," he said, calling the victims "heroes" for coming forward.

Asked how the victims were faring, Caccaviello replied, "Right now, there's a whole range of emotions."

The Berkshire District Attorney's Office hasn't yet formulated its sentencing recommendation, but Mercure could spend the rest of his life behind bars. "He's been convicted of life felonies," Caccaviello said.

So much of the trial's testimony focused on individuals and events from New York, with only a fraction of the testimony pertaining to the Berkshire County assaults. "It presented difficult challenges," Caccaviello admitted.

"Father Satan"
However, the jury ultimately believed the testimony of the five altar boys who accused Mercure of long-term sexual abuse in New York during the 1980s.

Two of those men also testified that Mercure raped them during car trips to the Berkshires, including a 1986 outing to a hiking area bordering Great Barrington and Monterey and a 1989 trip to the former Brodie Mountain Ski Area in New Ashford. "I think that the jury could tell that our two victims were credible," Caccaviello said.

All of the former altar boys hail from New York and are now in their 30s, including one who's the father of an infant child. State police investigators who handled the probe said one altar boy, now 35, was forcibly raped twice by Mercure during that single 1986 trip to South County. The other victim, now 34, was raped once by Mercure during the 1989 trip to New Ashford, police said.

The 1986 incident occurred between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31 of that year, while the 1989 incident happened between Feb. 1 and Feb. 28 of that year, according to police and prosecutors. Meanwhile, a statement issued by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany referred to Mercure's crimes as "sinful, criminal and reprehensible." "Our hearts today are with the children who were abused, all now adults. We admire the strength and courage they demonstrated by coming forward. As devastating as their experiences must have been, they have shown by example that they are survivors -- strong, resilient and powerful," the diocese said in a statement issued after the verdicts came down.

After receiving an abuse allegation against Mercure in early 2008, the diocese contacted the Warren County (N.Y.) District Attorney's Office, which was unable to prosecute Mercure due to the vintage of the claims. Massachusetts has a statute of limitations that's more favorable to these sorts of prosecutions, however, and was able to hold Mercure criminally responsible for his decades-old crimes.

In Massachusetts, the countdown for the statute of limitations didn't begin running until 2008, when Berkshire County authorities first learned of the abuse.

The Albany Diocese permanently banned Mercure from ministry in August 2008, which meant that Mercure could no longer function as or present himself as a priest, according to diocesan spokesman Ken Goldfarb.

Church officials in Albany said they're hopeful the Mercure case might encourage other clergy abuse victims "to report the abuse immediately and seek assistance."

After the verdict, a member of the jury that convicted Mercure spoke briefly to reporters outside the courthouse. "I'm glad I served," said the woman, who declined to give her name or address, but plans to attend next week's sentencing. "Whatever the sentencing is, 100 times that wouldn't even scratch the surface for what he deserves," she said.

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