Convicted in child porn case, rogue priest still preaching
YORK, Pa. (AP) — Harry Spencer realized that he was home.
He’d grown uncomfortable with the direction of the Catholic Church, particularly since Vatican II. The doctrines had changed. The Mass had changed. So had all the traditions and rituals.
Then, about seven years ago, Spencer started going to what would become St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church in Lower Windsor Township. It offers a traditional Latin Mass. The Rev. Virgil Tetherow, also known as Father Gabriel, leads the church.
“I have never met a priest that I’ve felt more comfortable with in his religiosity and his ability to teach the religion of the Roman Catholic faith,” Spencer said. “I love my religion. And Father Tetherow is a true Catholic priest.”
But that is not what the Catholic church says.
In fact, Tetherow “is not recognized as a priest, is prohibited from presenting himself as clergy and is not associated with the Diocese of Harrisburg,” said Mike Barley, a spokesman for the diocese, who encouraged the faithful to not attend Tetherow’s services.
Tetherow, 54, is among 301 “predator priests” named in the recent landmark grand jury report that details widespread sexual abuse in six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. He was arrested in 2005 after police found child pornography on two computers and he later pleaded guilty to criminal use of a communication facility.
In a statement provided to the grand jury, he maintains his conviction isn’t what it seems and that the grand jury report distorts the public record. He’s never been accused of physical sexual abuse of children.
Many of the clergy named in the almost 900-page report are dead. But Tetherow, who declined to be interviewed, is still actively running a church — and there’s nothing, and apparently no one, that can prevent him from doing so. A York Daily Record/Sunday News investigation based on dozens of interviews, Right-to-Know Law requests, court records and secret canonical letters reveals how he’s been able to weave a narrative to discredit the conviction and keep loyal followers in his flock.
‘NICE CLOTHES, FANCY CARS, AND A GORGEOUS PLACE TO LIVE’
Virgil Bradley Tetherow was born on Aug. 25, 1964.
He graduated from Hidden Valley High School in Grants Pass, Oregon, about four hours south of Portland.
In his 1982 senior yearbook photo, Tetherow, wearing a plaid suit jacket and sporting a hairstyle typical of the time, looks out to the right, a mole on his right cheek, the name under his photo, “Brad Tetherow.”
Throughout the years, Tetherow has gone by other names, including Gabriel Tetherow, Brother Gabriel Francis Tetherow and Father Gabriel.
In a 2009 interview with Connections magazine, a short-lived, digital-only publication in Lancaster County, Tetherow spoke about how he went from a glamorous life as a professional model to being called to the priesthood.
He’s told people that he modeled underwear for Calvin Klein. Tetherow, a fellow priest later reported, once said he was previously in the Screen Actors Guild, since he’d played the “Winnie-the-Pooh” character Tigger for Disney.
A spokesman for the Walt Disney Co. said Tetherow never worked for the company.
“I had everything in the world — nice clothes, fancy cars, and a gorgeous place to live but I didn’t have peace,” Tetherow said in the magazine article, adding that he was once Mr. Oregon.
In the story, Tetherow said he had an epiphany at an airport. He said he stepped off a plane and saw three nuns and two priests standing before him.
“I looked at them and knew these people were living an authentic life that was externally visible to everyone,” he said. “I felt so self-centered and realized, in that moment, I didn’t want to be self-centered anymore.”
Next, Tetherow said, he flew home to Florida. He threw a party and gave away almost everything that he owned, except for his car and the clothes on his back. “I used to love a woman very deeply, but I have since become the godfather of her children,” he said.
In 1996, Tetherow joined the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. He was assigned to St. Leopold’s Friary in Yonkers, New York, after taking his first vows.
Tetherow helped renovate the friary and lived a life of prayer and mission. He left in 1998.
Later, Tetherow talked with then-Scranton Bishop James Timlin about establishing a religious community within that diocese.
Timlin signed off and the Servants Minor of St. Francis was started in 2001.
Tetherow was ordained at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Denton, Nebraska, on June 29, 2002.
He was incardinated in the Diocese of Scranton but never given an assignment, according to the grand jury report. It’s unclear how or why he went from New York to Pennsylvania to Nebraska then back to Pennsylvania — or where else he might have stopped along the way.
In the Scranton diocese, Tetherow lived at St. Ann Catholic Church in Coolbaugh Township, Monroe County. That’s where he got into trouble with the law.
‘HE ADMITTED THAT HE SOMETIMES MASTURBATED . AND VIEWED THE IMAGES’
On Jan. 17, 2005, the Rev. Michael Kloton, the priest from St. Ann’s, went to Pocono Mountain Regional police to file a report.
According to police records, Kloton brought a 14-page list of computer data and a disc with images of “immoral material” that had been found on a church computer.
Kloton told detectives that a man who was working on the church computers found the files, some of which had names that some might associate with child pornography.
The man, Kloton reported, told him that he viewed an image of two young males engaged in sexual acts on the computer.
Kloton told police that several people had access to the computer. A secretary, a woman named Vicky, most often used it.
But Kloton named Tetherow as a suspect because of when the files were downloaded.
Kloton did not respond to recent requests for an interview, instead referring questions to the Scranton diocese.
Police examined the computer at the church and found more than 10 images of child pornography. They later learned of another computer at the church — one Tetherow used in the room he sometimes occupied. Police took that one, too.
About two weeks later, Tetherow went to police to give a statement. He “admitted that he downloaded and viewed images of child pornography” at the church for almost one year, between January and December 2004.
Tetherow told police he used the computer that several people had access to and the one that was found in the room he sometimes used at the church.
“He admitted that he sometimes masturbated while he sat at Vicky’s desk and viewed the images,” police wrote in an affidavit of probable cause.
A few days later, police examined the computer that Tetherow said he used in his room at the church to view child pornography. Police found more than 10 images of child pornography on that computer. Police learned that he used the name “Father Gabriel” to access the internet.
A pediatrician reviewed the images for police and identified the children in the pornographic files as being boys between 9 and 14.
On Aug. 16, 2005, Tetherow pleaded guilty to criminal use of a communication facility, a felony, and was later sentenced to serve two years of probation. Prosecutors moved to dismiss the remaining charges, including 10 counts of possession of child pornography.
In a written form, Tetherow signed his name acknowledging that he understood all the elements of the crime to which he was pleading guilty.
“I illegally used a computer in January 2005 in Coolbaugh Township, Monroe County Pennsylvania,” the document states.
The York Daily Record requested court transcripts from the Monroe County Court of Common Pleas. But in an order denying the motion, President Judge Margherita Patti-Worthington wrote that “the raw notes of testimony, having never been transcribed, have been destroyed.”
The judge who presided over the case, Ronald E. Vican, died in 2014.
Mark Love, Tetherow’s former attorney, said he couldn’t discuss how or why the plea agreement was reached because of attorney-client confidentiality.
Tetherow had a “sterling reputation,” he said, and a lot of people came forward to support him. Love said the case was appropriately handled.
“When you hear about what’s in the grand jury report, those things considering other people were far more serious,” Love said. “There was no allegation that he touched anybody or did anything inappropriate with anyone else. His actions were solely on a computer.”
Rob Saurman, who prosecuted the case as an assistant district attorney in the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office, said he recalled that the punishment for child pornography then wasn’t as severe as it is now. Plea negotiations take place in cases, he said.
Prosecutors have used criminal use of a communication facility to get convictions in drug cases in which dealers arranged transactions using a cellphone, he said. “It doesn’t mean I’m not a drug dealer because I took that charge,” Saurman said.
“This guy is a felon for life as a result of using a church computer to look at child pornography,” said Saurman, who’s now a criminal defense, civil and family law attorney in Stroudsburg. “There’s no exoneration there.”
‘HE DID NOT UNDERSTAND OR BELIEVE THAT HE WAS ADMITTING TO DOWNLOADING CHILD PORNOGRAPHY’
The York Daily Record obtained several letters containing private correspondence about the case against Tetherow.
In a letter dated Sept. 21, 2006, J. Michael Ritty, Tetherow’s attorney, wrote to Cardinal William Levada in Rome about the church’s preliminary investigation into his client, asserting that Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino was overstating his case.
Tetherow agreed to make an admission to “settle the charges against him without going through a lengthy public trial.”
“He did not understand or believe that he was admitting to downloading child pornography,” Ritty wrote in the letter, adding that his client “understood only that he had admitted that he had illegally used a computer.”
Tetherow, the lawyer wrote, “in fact did not actually understand the full implication of what others would believe he had admitted to until I pointed out the various counts or charges that were involved in the discussion reaching the agreement with the Court.”
“As you may be aware, the internet is a dangerous place — a person and his computer are exposed to viruses, spy-ware, misdirection from one site to another site, unwanted and automatic downloading of materials,” Ritty wrote. “Parents of children in the United States are constantly on the alert because of the great abuse of the internet by those promoting pornography.”
Ritty wrote that it was not entirely clear what transpired with his client’s use of a computer. But there were also circumstances in his life that could be considered “mitigating factors.”
For example, on Nov. 17, 2003, Martino ended the Servants Minor of St. Francis because Tetherow was the only member of the community, said Bill Genello, executive director of communications for the Scranton diocese, in an email.
When the association was disbanded, Tetherow suffered depression and disorientation and began drinking to excess, Ritty wrote.
In a letter dated Oct. 5, 2006, Ritty wrote that his client underwent a psychosexual assessment and appeared to place in the normal range of the population.
Tetherow, the letter states, scored in the low range of a category, which “reflects him to be a low risk of developing attitudes and/or beliefs that would enable him to develop excuses and/or justifications to sexually molest children.”
He also did not match against any of the known categories of sexual offenders and pedophiles who’ve taken the screening, the letter states, or against those who molest children and attempt to deny the allegations.
“It would appear that Mr. Tetherow’s use of child pornographic materials on the Internet was not part of a fixed and persistent pedophilic interest towards minor children,” David Humphreys with Tri-County Human Services Center Inc. wrote in a report. “However, it may, more likely, have been part of his overall pornography use, which included adults at that time, and that he allowed his curiosity to occur within the child pornography material.”
When reached by phone, Ritty said he does not discuss cases involving former clients.
SAINTS PETER & PAUL ROMAN CATHOLIC MISSION
Claudia Drew and her husband, David, were among Tetherow’s loyal followers and his most passionate defenders. They met him almost 20 years ago when he was a young seminarian, she recalled during a recent interview.
“From what we saw, really, we just fell for him,” she said.
He was humble. He had a kind smile. And he was very charming.
Back then, Tetherow had a beard and wore sandals — very Franciscan looking. Drew recalled she and her husband were still traveling, sometimes two hours away, to have Mass in the traditional Latin rite.
As traditional Catholics, they spent years traveling long distances for Mass, carting flowers and statues and other things with them. For a time, they met at a hotel in Lancaster County, Drew said.
Traditional Catholics believe in an old way of doing things, the way Mass was performed before Vatican II, a meeting of Catholic hierarchy in the 1960s that modernized the church. That’s why going to just any Catholic church isn’t an option for traditional Catholics.
Drew said she only ever went to traditional Mass before she moved to the United States from Nicaragua. When she raised her eight children, she never once took them to the new Mass.
In the early 2000s, with their congregation growing, Drew said, members of her church wanted to find a building of their own. They found a former synagogue in York that was for sale. It needed substantial renovations but they made the purchase and did the work.
In 2004, Saints Peter & Paul Roman Catholic Chapel opened its doors at the corner of South Beaver Street and West Newton Avenue.
Then, in 2005, Drew and her husband heard that Tetherow had been arrested. They reached out to his mother. When they heard from Tetherow that he had been framed, they sent him $500 to help him defend himself, Drew recalled.
“To us, he was a persecuted priest,” Drew said. She explained that it’s not uncommon for priests who perform the Latin rite Mass and who don’t follow the ways of Rome to be laicized and shunned by the church. She and her husband believed that’s what happened to Tetherow.
Tetherow told them he didn’t understand what he had pleaded guilty to, that he didn’t know what the word “download” meant. He told them he couldn’t defend himself against the charges because he was protecting another priest who had confessed to him.
“He had to protect the seal of confession,” Drew said.
They invited him to their church, and he came and stayed for a few weeks. But then he left suddenly, Drew said. He called them a short time later and he said he was going to a monastery to volunteer helping an elderly priest who was crippled and needed someone to say Mass for him and help take care of farm animals at his property.
The Drews didn’t know it at the time, but Tetherow was on probation.
Letters from his attorney indicate that Tetherow had intended to spend his time on probation living in Susquehanna County with a fellow priest, Hieromonk Angelus Ferrara, whose legal name is Philip Ferrara. Ferrara was later convicted of sexually abusing a 14-year-old boy, according to the grand jury report.
Years later, Tetherow returned to Saints Peter & Paul Roman Catholic Mission to serve as its priest. Tetherow was working out well, until he started a school without permission from the church board, in the basement. The school was in violation of the city code, Drew said.
That caused division in the church because many members wanted the school, but others believed it had to operate in accordance with the law, said Drew, who homeschooled all of her children.
She and her husband sought counsel from their spiritual adviser, as they had in the past, about the division. The adviser told them to fire Tetherow.
The Drews realized they had made a mistake.
On May 14, 2010, the Board of Directors of Saints Peter & Paul Roman Catholic Mission fired Tetherow. That’s when their spiritual adviser told the Drews that he had investigated Tetherow and learned that he’d been misleading them.
When Tetherow left the mission, most of the congregation followed him.
Drew said she has no hard feelings toward those people. She’d even welcome them back.
“I don’t blame the people that follow him,” she said, “because we did the same thing.”
‘REBIRTH OF A CHAPEL’
In a book called “Rebirth of a Chapel,” Dave Romeo, a founding member of St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church, wrote that about 97 percent of the congregation followed Tetherow to Mass at the Yorktowne Hotel.
Construction soon began on a basement chapel designed to hold up to 60 people in Dover. Within weeks, members began searching for a permanent building, according to the book.
They eventually found one, the former Bittersville United Methodist Church, on Craley Road in Lower Windsor Township, purchasing the building for $100,000, according to York County property records.
On July 17, 2011, St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church held its first traditional Mass.
In the book, Romeo wrote that the first words he heard Tetherow say from the pulpit were, “I am at odds with my bishop.”
Tetherow made it clear that he would not offer the new Mass so he became a “persona non grata” with his bishop and diocese. The decision, the book states, “would lead to years of personal assaults one would never wish on anybody.”
“While Our Lord was falsely accused and attacked by ‘chief priests and scribes’ for actions he never committed, Father Tetherow was persecuted by crackpots, hacks, and cowards with their own political agendas,” Romeo wrote.
Romeo wrote he’s never seen Tetherow act in an inappropriate manner.
Tetherow heard confessions while in the Scranton diocese, Romeo wrote. One, he wrote, would change the priest’s life forever.
“Father Tetherow could exonerate himself and fill in the missing pieces, but then he would have to violate the seal of the confessional,” Romeo wrote. “Instead, we wait patiently, praying that the actual party will step forward and clear our priest’s good name.”
The grand jury report was ‘misleading and distorted the record’
Pope Francis dismissed Tetherow from the clerical state on Jan. 23, 2015. It’s unclear why.
The Vatican did not respond to an inquiry about why it took almost 10 years from the time of his conviction to laicize him.
In August, Tetherow was publicly named in the grand jury report. The document included his response to the investigation.
In an interview, Marc Semke, Tetherow’s attorney, said his client felt compelled to respond because he believed the report was “misleading and distorted the record.”
“Father Tetherow believed the report gave the false impression he was convicted of child pornography,” Semke said. “As the record, however, demonstrated, he pled guilty to one count of misuse of a communication device and all other counts, including all child pornography counts, were dismissed.”
Tetherow feels that he’s always been open and honest with the congregation regarding the charges, Semke said.
But Tetherow’s recollection of his prosecution isn’t easy to follow.
Semke said there was pornography on the church computer but that his client did not specifically remember seeing child pornography. But he was shown there were two pictures of children on his computer through the court process. Tetherow believes that his attorney at the time “indicated to the court that the basis for the plea was he viewed images he should not have,” Semke said.
“If he knew the factual basis was possession of child pornography, he would not have pled guilty,” Semke said.
Detective Sgt. Ken Lenning, the lead investigator for the Pocono Mountain Regional Police Department, said Tetherow, after initially not telling the truth, was cooperative with the investigation and took responsibility for his actions.
“He’s definitely downplaying things,” Lenning said. “He’s supposed to be this truthful person that people look up to, you know? And that’s not good. That’s not what I look at as a priest or pastor or someone I would go to for guidance.”
Outside St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church in September, Tetherow spoke with reporters for almost two hours but refused multiple times to talk on the record.
In a Facebook post, St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church later wrote “it has been called to our attention that a pestiferous reporter has been spamming individuals who are liking our page.”
“It’s not the first time the dubious media has tried to attack the reputation of certain clergy and the ‘independent of any diocese’ status of St. Michael’s,” the post said. “Even at the local level, media is more interested in scandalizing than reporting fairly.”
‘HE’S FREE TO DO WHATEVER HE WANTS TO DO WITHIN THE CONFINES OF THE LAW’
Under the plea agreement, Tetherow wasn’t convicted of a crime that resulted in him having to register as a sex offender under Megan’s Law. He’s no longer on probation. He can do what he wants, where he wants, without having to report to authorities.
In an email, Sgt. James Thomas, the officer-in-charge at the Lower Windsor Township Police Department, said he’s aware of no problems at the church.
“The simple reality is, if he’s not committing any crimes, then he’s free to do whatever he wants to do within the confines of the law,” York County District Attorney Dave Sunday said.
St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church is part of the Guild of St. Peter ad Vincula, a loose affiliation of independent priests based in Ohio, providing support to traditional Catholics, said Father Bernard Hall, dean of the guild.
The guild, he said, has no authority over the priests or churches that are part of it.
He said he’s “been aware of accusations made against” Tetherow for many years but was led to believe it was a set-up because he’s a traditional priest and could be targeted.
Tetherow described himself as a “neophyte” and stated that he didn’t understand the meaning of the word “download” as it related to the child pornography, Hall said.
Hall was not aware that Tetherow told police in 2005 that he masturbated to the images of child pornography found on a computer at a Scranton diocese church.
“Yuck, yuck,” Hall said. “Why would he ever admit to doing that? It’s a private act.”
But Hall also questioned whether Tetherow had broken the law. For example, Hall said, if Tetherow just viewed it after someone else downloaded it, “and he said, ‘Well, that was kinky,’ and he had a private moment.”
Whatever happened back then, Hall said, Tetherow has been operating in two parishes in Pennsylvania, the one in Lower Windsor Township and one in Chester County, with “no complaints from the children in the parish, the families in the parish.”
Parishioners trust Tetherow and go to his church “to some extent at their own risk, and they all are quite aware of what Father Tetherow’s history is as far as his brush with the law,” Hall said.
He gave no indication that he would break off Tetherow’s association with the guild, providing no new accusations come to light.
“The kind of work he’s been doing in these parishes since, is sterling work,” Hall said. “He does a lot of very, very good work. He does so much good that I would hate to see his name being put up on an article or anywhere else, on the internet or whatever.”
Bishop Joseph Kopacz of the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, who previously served as the vicar for priests in Scranton, doesn’t buy Tetherow’s explanation about not being able to break the seal of the confessional, saying it “doesn’t even connect the dots.”
“That’s a crock,” Kopacz said. “But that’s like, really, he’s scrambling for some kind of credible story here.”
“He was found with the pornography. It was not planted on his computer.”
But once a priest is laicized, Kopacz said, he’s fired. There’s nothing that a bishop or diocese can do — besides make a public announcement.
“He plea-bargained,” Kopacz said, “and then he reinvented himself.”
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