PITTSBURGH (AP) – Jury selection began Tuesday for a suspended Catholic priest charged with traveling to Honduras to have sex with poor street children during missionary trips.
The Rev. Joseph Maurizio Jr. has been jailed since last fall, when federal prosecutors in Johnstown accused him of molesting one boy and possessing child pornography. A new indictment in April added charges involving two other boys and said the Somerset County priest illegally sent $8,000 to a charity to help facilitate the trips, which ended in 2009.
The 70-year-old priest has denied the allegations and has continued to be supported by some members of Our Lady Queen of Angels, the church he pastored before being placed on leave because of the charges.
Jury selection is expected to continue all day Wednesday. U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson is expected to rule on two key issues before testimony begins.
Federal prosecutors want to use an expert witness to describe the effects of sexual abuse on children so prosecutors can argue that Maurizio’s victims were similarly affected. The judge also has ruled that prosecutors can call a witness, now an adult, who says he was molested by Maurizio while a boy, even though he’s not one of the three accusers in the case.
That evidence is relevant, prosecutors argued in a motion to allow the testimony, because it demonstrates Maurizio’s “persistent interest in sexual acts with minors and an ongoing desire to observe others engaging in sexually explicit conduct.”
Defense attorney Steven Passarello has argued against the expert witness because she hasn’t interviewed any of the accusers in the case.
The key charge Maurizio faces, engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places, also is referred to as sexual tourism, or the act of traveling abroad to commit child-sex acts that are illegal in the United States.
He’s also charged with three counts of transferring out of the country money used to promote an illegal activity.
Passarello has said a rival charity, ProNino USA, and unspecified Dutch atheists have conspired to bribe poor Honduran children to accuse the priest.
ProNino USA hasn’t responded to repeated requests from The Associated Press to comment on the defense attorney’s claims.
The priest is charged with sending $8,000 in three installments to ProNino USA in 2007 and 2008 to finance sex trips. The charity is not accused of wrongdoing, nor does the indictment suggest that officials with the charity knew the purpose of Maurizio’s trips.
Maurizio has been jailed since Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested him in September.
A criminal complaint filed then alleges Maurizio gave boys candy and money so he could molest them – including performing a sex act on a 14-year-old in a chapel – or watch the boys have sex.
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