Potter Junior High School
Potter Junior High School in Fallbrook. Courtesy OnScene.TV

A Pittsburgh priest known to have molested children as long ago as 1962 moved to San Diego in 1967, teaching in Fallbrook for 20 years and celebrating Mass locally, Times of San Diego has learned.

That Roman Catholic clergyman, the late Rev. Ernest C. Paone, apparently avoided scrapes with local authorities, however.

“We looked into Father Paone’s links to the Diocese of San Diego, said Kevin Eckery, the San Diego diocese vice chancellor for communication.

“He lived in Oceanside, but he never received an appointment from us, period. He may have done private Masses or fill-in work. But every time he asked for something more permanent, he was told no.”

Section of Pennsylvania Grand Jury report devoted to “The Case of Father Ernest Paone.” (PDF)

In the wake of an explosive Pennsylvania Grand Jury report gaining national attention, its study of Paone reveals how that state’s Catholic officials refused to deal with documented cases of child molestation.

But the San Diego diocese had no knowledge of this, Eckery said Wednesday in a phone interview.

“There was some concern over the circumstances under which he left the Diocese of Pittsburgh … just that feeling that we didn’t have the complete picture,” he said.

A Vicar priest under Bishop Robert Brom made the decision to deny Paone full priestly privileges in San Diego County, Eckery said.

Paone’s name doesn’t appear in a national database of priests accused of sexual abuse, and he wasn’t mentioned in the $198 million settlement with the San Diego diocese.

Until 1991, when he was technically transferred to the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, Paone was cleared to serve in San Diego by his home diocese of Pittsburgh even though his superiors knew him to be a pedophile, the report said.

But: “There is no indication that the [Pittsburgh] diocese provided any interested parties information that Paone had sexually abused children or that the diocese had played a role in preventing his prosecution for that conduct,” said the grand jury report.

That report also said Paone, who died at age 81 in 2012, “attended at least one course at Catholic University in San Diego.”

That likely was a reference to what is now the University of San Diego, whose officials confirmed a one-time student by that name.

“Please note that prior to 1972, Paone would have enrolled in the San Diego College for Men,” said Pamela Gray Payton, a school spokeswoman. “The name ‘University of San Diego’ was selected after the College for Men merged with the San Diego College for Women in 1972.”

According to a 2008 issue of USD’s alumni magazine, Paone was a graduate student in 1970 who retired after 20 years of teaching at Potter Junior High School in Fallbrook.

The Fallbrook Union Elementary School District didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, the San Diego County Office of Education found Paone in the state teachers retirement system, spokesman Stacy Brandt said.

“He became a CalSTRS member Sept. 6, 1966, and retired from the STRS system June 19, 1986,” he said.

A spokesman for the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing said Wednesday it didn’t have a record of a credential for Paone, but on Friday said: “Mr. Paone was issued a secondary teaching credential in 1966, and a junior college teaching credential (these documents are no longer issued by the Commission) in 1970,” found on microfilm.

In a 2,700-word chapter titled “The Case of Father Ernest Paone,” the Grand Jury report said that in August 1964, Beaver County District Attorney Robert Masters sent a letter to Bishop Vincent Leonard of the Diocese of Pittsburgh about a sexual abuse investigation of Paone.

“The district attorney advised the diocese that ‘in order to prevent unfavorable publicity,’ he had ‘halted all investigations into similar incidents involving young boys,” the report said, noting no action was taken against Paone.

More than a half-century later, the Grand Jury asked why.

“On September 15, 2017, Masters … was confronted with his letter which the Grand Jury obtained from Diocesan files,” the report said. “When asked by the attorney for the Commonwealth why he would defer to the bishop on a criminal matter, Master replied, ‘Probably respect for the bishop. I really have no proper answer.’”

Masters told the Grand Jury he was “desirous of support from the diocese for his political career.”

The Diocese of Pittsburgh repeatedly labeled Paone a priest in good standing. But it wasn’t until 41 years after the diocese learned that Paone was sexually assaulting children that he was finally retired from active ministry, the report said.

In 2006, three years after Paone’s retirement, the Pittsburgh diocese got a confidential memorandum from the Rev. John Rushofsky, a clergy personnel official, that revealed Paone had been “assisting with confessions for confirmation-age children, apparently asking inappropriate questions of the young penitents.”

“When questioned about this, Paone told local [Los Angeles or San Diego] diocesan officials that he had received permission from the [Pittsburgh] diocese,” the report said.

Between Paone’s departure from Pennsylvania in 1966 and 1991, he also served as pastor of a parish in the Los Angeles County city of Diamond Bar, where he heard “many confessions in that parish,” the report said.

Diocesan spokesman Eckery said Paone was a regular celebrant at St. Denis Catholic Church in Diamond Bar every weekend for at least 21 years. (The Rev. Msgr. James J. Loughnane, who started as pastor there in 1993, says Paone was not a pastor and triggered no negative stories. “I don’t know if there’s anyone around who will even remember him now,” he said Thursday. “I never met the man.”)

Paone was granted an indefinite leave of absence in 1966 “for reasons bound up with your psychological and physical health as well as spiritual well-being,” the report said, quoting one of many documents it found.

Even though the statute of limitations had expired on Paone’s incidents, the report says that in June 2002, a victim advised the Diocese of Pittsburgh that he was sexually abused by Paone in the 1960s.

“It occurred at the victim’s house, at a hunting camp to which Paone had access to in the woods, and in Paone’s car,” the Grand Jury said. “Paone also provided the victim with alcohol, pornographic magazines and cash.”

Paone died in Pittsburgh on May 12, 2012 — reportedly of Alzheimer’s disease.

His paid obituary said: “Father Paone was ordained in 1957, and spent nine years working in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He spent 20 years in California teaching in the public school system, and performing his priestly duties in ministry of Hispanic people, and dividing his work with two different churches. In May of 2011, he celebrated 55 years as a priest.”

Updated at 6:15 p.m. Aug. 17, 2018