Convicted priest removed from St. Petersburg post
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rev. Matthew Berko, convicted of molesting a 14-year-old girl in Canada in 1984, has been relieved of his duties as pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.
In an interview Tuesday, Berko, 73, said he received a letter on Saturday from his superior, a bishop in Ohio, informing him that he was being removed from his post.
He broke the news to his stunned congregation during two Masses on Sunday.
"I'm heartbroken," he said Tuesday. "I'm nearly 75 and still have the will and the desire to work for my church and my God."
He said his old friend, Bishop Basil H. Losten of Connecticut and leader of New York and New England Ukrainian Catholics, has called to "invite" him to his diocese. Berko had also turned to Losten years ago after he pleaded guilty to the charges in Canada. He left the Toronto-area parish and served his probation in Connecticut within his friend's diocese.
Earlier Tuesday, Berko's victim had predicted that the priest would simply move to another church.
"They will just repost him," said Alexandra Myhal, now 33. "I guarantee it. They will do what they've always done."
She wants him defrocked. Ms. Myhal is flying to Florida today from her home outside Toronto to push her cause with the media and to take her mother, a winter resident, away from new publicity on the old case.
At a meeting Tuesday afternoon, members of the St. Petersburg church's parish council and other church leaders passionately supported the priest and planned to petition Berko's bishop to reinstate him to the job he has held for more than five years. They believe he is innocent.
"All of us in this total church are behind Father Berko 100 percent," Marion Senyk said.
Berko, who had been pastor of Ms. Myhal's church in Canada, pleaded guilty during a 1985 trial to sexually assaulting her, although he adamantly maintains his innocence. The priest later lost a lawsuit brought by the Myhal family and now owes nearly $1-million including legal costs and interest.
"His conduct was despicable and a flagrant breach of trust involving not only Ms. Myhal but also her parents," a Canadian judge said in making the award in 1990 to Ms. Myhal, her mother, Katharina, and father, Alexander.
Ms. Myhal said she is not interested in the money.
"He's never going to be accountable to me for his actions. He's got a higher power to answer to," she said this week.
Of more concern is "the negligence of the church," she said.
"It's just like, how many people have to be hurt? I want him out. I want him defrocked. I don't want him near kids."
During an interview Tuesday at his modest home near the gold-domed Ukrainian Catholic church, Berko said he can't bear to think of retiring.
Bishop Robert Moskal, who is located in Parma, Ohio, is the official who is removing the priest from the parish. According to Berko, the bishop said though it grieved him, he had no recourse but to follow the guidelines set forth by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops concerning cases of priests and pedophilia. Berko said the bishop added that his action did not presuppose guilt. Despite repeated attempts, the bishop could not be reached for comment.
Though Catholic, Berko does not fall under the jurisdiction of Bishop Robert N. Lynch and the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. The Ukrainian Catholic Church, while recognizing the pope as its head, adheres to an Eastern tradition of worship and allows priests to be married if they do so before ordination. Berko, who was married for 17 years, has two children and three grandchildren.
According to court records, while Berko was parish priest at St. Mary's Ukrainian Catholic Church in Mississauga, near Toronto, 14-year-old Alexandra often met with him. She was president of the parish youth group. On Jan. 19, 1984, she visited Berko at the rectory to discuss club activities and do some photocopying.
"When I got inside, he wanted me to go to the rec room, which I'd never done before," Ms. Myhal recalled during an interview last week. "We talked. We had a discussion, like, how school was, and then he offered me something to drink. He said, 'Don't worry about it. It's church wine.' I only basically had a mouthful.
"He leaned over and touched my face and said I had soft skin. I was quite embarrassed at the time and he said, 'I want to kiss you.' . . . He basically said, 'Sandy, don't worry. I wouldn't hurt you.' He said it repeatedly. He lifted up my shirt, put his hand under my shirt and started to fondle me. I was scared. He kissed my breast. . . . I was completely in shock. He undid my pants. There was digital penetration at which point, he said, 'I would like to have sex with you, but I won't.' "
She wanted to commit suicide after she got home that evening, Ms. Myhal said.
Berko tells a different story.
"I vehemently deny it," he said of Ms. Myhal's accusation. "The girl does not have a good reputation. . . . The girl is a dreamer. She has always had fantasies."
Berko said he entered the guilty plea only to protect himself and his church from widespread notoriety.
Thomas J. Lockwood, Ms. Myhal's attorney, scoffs at claims of Berko's innocence.
"Father Berko himself pleads guilty. The man is a convicted pedophile. What's also significant is he also had a civil trial. . . . We had a trial and we had witnesses and we proved our case. The judge came down with a decision. So this is the second decision in the Canadian court," Lockwood said from his Toronto office.
To Berko, though, his slate is clean. During a recent interview, he displayed a letter from the solicitor general of Canada granting him a pardon under that country's "provisions of the Criminal Records Act."
According to the Canadian government Web site, however, the pardon simply indicates that a person has completed his sentence and that a certain period has passed. It does not erase the fact that a person was convicted for an offense.
After serving his probation in the United States, Berko returned to the Myhals' parish. Incensed, they filed a suit against the priest, his bishop and the Ukrainian Catholic Church of Eastern Canada. The case against the bishop and the church was dismissed. The one against Berko went to trial.
Ms. Myhal said Berko's assault ruined her adolescence.
"I was 14 when it happened. I was 15 when he was charged. I was 16 when he returned, and I was 19 when we won the civil suit. I can't even express what it is like to act like a normal teenager."
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
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