Priest pleads ‘no contest’ to sex-related charges
Father Stephen Valenta of Todt Hill, New York, accepted a last-minute plea bargain, was convicted of injury to an elderly person and was sentenced to five years deferred adjudicated probation by District Judge Ed Magre.
Fr. Valenta was indicted one year ago for sexual assault, a second-degree felony, and prohibited sexual contact, a third-degree felony, in connection with incidents occurring May 21, 2008, in Rockdale.
“The charge to which Fr. Valenta pleaded today (injury to the elderly) does not represent a plea to a lesser offense,” Prosecutor Kerry Spears told The Reporter minutes after Judge Magre gaveled the session to a close.
“It’s a first-degree felony, a more serious offense in the eyes of the law,” Spears said.
Unadjudicated probation means if the person convicted of an offense successfully completes the probation period, the offense will not be entered on his record.
Judge Magre set, and Fr. Valenta agreed to, the following conditions of probation:
• Supervised residency in a friary, not the Todt Hill (Staten Island, New York) friary where he has resided for 12 years.
• Not to leave the friary without supervision.
• To avoid any unsupervised contact with adult females and children.
• Have no contact with the victim or the victim’s family.
• To surrender his passport. • Standard probation terms including $292 court costs, $1,428 restitution, several other fees and 240 hours community service.
Magre said violation of probation conditions could still result in punishment of 5 to 99 years and a fine of up to $10,000.
“The state agreed to this plea bargain because we feel the conditions imposed today are just,” Spears said.
“If he had been convicted of the original charges he would have been ordered to register as a sex offender and would have been sent to a facility that houses clerics convicted of such offenses, the kind of place where it would have been possible to just walk away,” she said.
“This way he will be in a friary with the Franciscans (order of priests) where they will keep a close eye on him at all times,” she said. “That’s more supervision than we could provide for a sex offense.
“That’s what the victim in this case wanted in the first place, she wasn’t interested in sending him to jail, just putting him some place where this won’t ever happen again,” Spears said.
It was acknowledged the victim is an adult relative of Fr. Valenta.
She was present in court Monday, accompanied by the county’s crime victims advocate, but did not participate in the proceedings.
“This plea bargain also kept the victim from taking the stand,” Spears said.
It had been anticipated Monday’s court session would be a bench trial with Magre deciding guilt or innocence and assessing a punishment in the event of a guilty verdict.
That didn’t happen. Magre called for a recess after two other cases were quickly disposed of and attorneys left the courtroom to confer.
That left a notable air of tension in a courtroom more used to handcuffs and badges than clerical collars and nuns’s habits, both of which were present Monday.
Attorneys returned and were summoned to the bench. Magre read the agreement and asked Valenta if he understood, and agreed to, the terms of probation and the consequences for violating them.
Fr. Valenta answered that he did, in a soft, barely audible voice.
After Judge Magre concluded the session, Fr. Valenta was taken across the street to the 20th Judicial District Adult Probation Office, where terms of his sentence were worked out.
Among those surprised by Monday’s turn of events was Spears.
“I came here today prepared for a trial,” she said.
Fr. Valenta was represented by Chris Gunter of Austin.
The case stems from allegations which surfaced in the winter of 2008 regarding a period during the spring when Fr. Valenta was in Rockdale, filling in at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church for Fr. Gregory Hill, St. Joseph’s priest, who was attending an out-of-state conference.
“It’s alleged these incidents happened at the rectory, on East Davilla Avenue, several blocks away from the church,” Lt. J.D. Newlin of the Rockdale Police Department, said.
A copy of the police offense report on the investigation was entered into evidence by Spears.
The indictments allege that an oral sex incident occurred.
Newlin said the woman was compelled to perform the act by Fr. Valenta. “Basically she felt she had to do what he told her to do because of his position with the church,” Newlin said.
The indictment also alleges Fr. Valenta “exploited emotional dependency.”
Newlin said the victim did not report the incident until December, 2008, “after she had undergone counseling and been urged to take the case to officials.”
Police said investigators obtained e-mails between the priest and the victim in which the incident was discussed.
After Fr. Valenta was charged the Franciscan order blocked his Internet access, Spears said.
Fr. Va lenta, a C onvent ua l Franciscan priest, was ordained in 1951 in Albany.
He had spent over 57 years in the priesthood, has been in both radio and television ministries, served as a university chaplain and is the founder of Mount St. Francis Hermitage in Maine, New York.
Fr. Valenta had been a chaplain at State University of New York-Binghampton.
He has served as an Englishspeaking confessor for pilgrims at the Vatican and was previously assigned to Assisi, Italy, home of St. Francis of Assisi.
At the time of the offense, Fr. Valenta headed up the Hearts to Heart Center in Rensselear, New York.