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‘Credibly accused’ former RI priest charged with child molestation

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A former priest named to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence’s list of “credibly accused” clergymen last year was arrested on multiple charges of child molestation, according to R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha.

John Petrocelli, 75, was indicted by a statewide grand jury on three counts of first-degree child molestation and nine counts of second degree molestation, according to state prosecutors. The indictment was unsealed after he was arraigned in Providence Superior Court where he pleaded not guilty.

The grand jury alleged Petrocelli committed multiple acts of child molestation against three male victims under the age of 14 between November 1981 and October 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,” Neronha said in a statement. “Our ongoing review of alleged misconduct by clergy in Rhode Island is intended to achieve that result wherever possible.”

The charges stemmed from an ongoing investigation headed by Neronha’s office and R.I. State Police, who have spent more than a year investigating claims of sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests and other clergymen over several decades.

Petrocelli was ordained as a priest in 1971, according to court documents, and appointed to St. Ann Church in Providence. Five years later, he became assistant pastor at the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul in Providence where he served until 1981.

The Thursday charges are not the first time accusations of child molestation have surfaced against the man. In 1981, Petrocelli was assigned to the Holy Family Church in Woonsocket, where he was later accused of abusing a young boy. In 2003, a Lincoln man filed a lawsuit against the Diocese, alleging Petrocelli abused him in the late 1980s, according to news reports and court documents filed at the time.

The charges filed Wednesday are related to Petrocelli’s time spent at Holy Family Parish, according to prosecutors.

The church settled with the man — along with 35 other people who claimed they were molested by priests — for $14 million, although 12 News reported in 2007 that the man continued to fight the church over statute of limitations.

Prior to the allegations, Petrocelli was also assigned to Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence from 1990 to 1994, and St. Joseph Hospital in Providence from 1994 to 2002, according to the Diocese.

After the lawsuit against him came to light, the church placed Petrocelli on a leave of absence, according to news reports at the time. The Diocese said it removed him from ministry in 2002, which would have been around the same time the Lincoln man contacted the Diocese to report he had been molested, according to court documents.

In a statement, the Diocese reiterated that point.

“Petrocelli was removed form the ministry nearly twenty years ago, in 2002, following receipt of credible allegations of abuse, which were promptly reported to law enforcement,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement.

In 2019, the Diocese released a list of 50 priests and other clergymen it said were “credibly accused” of sexually abusing minors since the 1950s, which included Petrocelli. The term “credible accused” has no legal bearing, but is used by the church to describe allegations it has investigated internally and concluded to be plausible.

Retired Rhode Island State Police Maj. Kevin O’Brien, who leads the diocese’s Office of Compliance, helped put together the report after reviewing 70 years of files.

A Target 12 review of the report at the time showed the 50 priests and other clergymen were assigned to 185 Rhode Island institutions, including churches, schools hospitals and Catholic youth organizations.

Around the same time, the attorney general entered into an agreement with the Diocese, which provided his office and state police with access to all complaints and allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy since 1950.

The court set bail at $50,000 with surety, and a judge ordered no contact with victims or minors under age of 16, according to the attorney general’s office. His next court date is scheduled for Nov. 19, and he’ll have a pre-trial hearing in February.

Petrocelli’s arrest marks the first to come out of that investigation, which remains open and ongoing.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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