Priest gets up to 25 years in prison for child rapes
Wednesday February 16, 2011
This article has been updated since it was first posted at 2:46 p.m.
PITTSFIELD -- Calling Gary Mercure a "common thug" who committed evil acts while masquerading as a priest, Berkshire Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini today sentenced the former New York clergyman to up to 25 years in prison for raping two altar boys in the Berkshires in 1980s.
Agostini admonished Mercure before handing down what could essentially amount to a life sentence for the 62-year-old Troy, N.Y., man, who was permanently removed as a priest by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, N.Y., but technically remains a priest in the eyes of the Vatican.
To that end, Albany Bishop Howard Hubbard today said the diocese will now forward Mercure's case to the Vatican, which is the only body with authority to laicize priests, returning them to the lay state and stripping them of all religious authority.
"I am recommending to the Vatican, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that Gary Mercure -- already permanently removed in 2008 from all ministry in the [Albany Diocese] and forbidden to present himself as a priest in any way whatsoever -- now be dismissed formally from the clerical state," Hubbard said in a statement that coincided with Mercure's sentencing in Superior Court this afternoon.
Because so much of Mercure's trial focused on alleged events involving altar boys in New York, Agostini reminded the packed courtroom that his sentence would only reflect Mercure's convictions for crimes committed in Berkshire County in 1986 and 1989, involving former altar boys from New York who are now in their 30s.
"Those allegations were not before this jury," Agostini said of the alleged New York crimes.
Even so, the judge sentenced Mercure to 20 to 25 years in state prison, saying the priest's actions had violated the trust of his victims and their families. Mercure had forged strong bonds with his victim's families, leading parents to categorically trust him.
Agostini told Mercure that he had "an opportunity to be special," but instead violated his calling and took advantage of his position as a religious figure to satisfy his own needs.
"You're not a priest. You're no more than a common thug," Agostini said, accusing Mercure of masking his true nature.
Because Mercure has no criminal record, sentencing guidelines indicated he could serve between 12 and 15 years in prison -- a sentence that Agostini could have doubled, considering there were two victims.
Berkshire First Assistant District Attorney Paul J. Caccaviello recommended a prison sentence of 30 to 40 years for Mercure, meaning the priest would be at least 92 or as old as 102 if and when he's released from prison, depending on whether he completed the full minimum or maximum term.
Meanwhile, defense attorney Michael O. Jennings had asked Agostini to consider an eight-year jail sentence, to be served locally in the Berkshires. Jennings argued that, despite Mercure's conviction, he had done good acts in his 34 years as Catholic priest, including ministering to the poor, marrying people and conducting funeral Masses, among other things.
Jennings pointed out that a convicted child rapist is at "the very bottom of the social ladder" in prison. As precedent has shown, convicted pedophile priests run the risk of being verbally and physically abused and even killed during their incarceration, the attorney said.
"It's the worst kind of way to have to do time," Jennings said.
In an interview afterward, Caccaviello said he was satisfied with the judge's decision.
"I can't quarrel with the sentence. It's a significant state prison sentence," Caccaviello said. "I'm content that he's going to serve at least two decades in state prison."
The possibility of parole for Mercure figured into Caccaviello's decision to request a hefty prison sentence, with the prosecutor arguing that Mercure could still pose a risk if he's released at some future date.
"It is strongly suggested that he's a predator who happened to wear priest's clothing," Caccaviello said.
The prosecutor said Mercure slyly insinuated himself into his victims' lives by gaining the trust of their families, most of which viewed the priest as a valued friend and confidant.
"It makes what he did even that much more sinister," Caccaviello said.
Jennings said an appeal would be filed, although he won't be the attorney handling that process. Mercure has 10 days to file the motion.
"We haven't seen anything yet," Caccaviello said around 3:30 p.m. today.
Agostini handed down his sentence around 2:35 p.m. today.
Last Thursday, a jury convicted Mercure of three counts of forcible rape and one count of indecent assault and battery on a child younger than 14. The jury took about 2 hours to arrive at its verdicts.
Mercure raped the two former altar boys from his Queensbury, N.Y., parish during separate day trips to the Berkshires in 1986 and 1989.
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