Priest breaks seal of confession over Bronx murder

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The Independent US

For ten years, Joseph Towle knew the truth about a fatal stabbing in 1987 of a young man in a Bronx park and yet he said nothing. He had information that the two men convicted in the case and sent to prison were innocent of the crime and that the real murderers had got away. Now, at last, he has told his story.

The secret was revealed in a federal appeals court on Monday. The witness is better known as Father Towle, a Jesuit priest. In giving his testimony and finally revealing the identity of the real killer, he was performing his civic duty. Some wondered, however, whether he has broken sacred laws of the Church in doing so.

The seeds of Father Towle's awful dilemma were planted one afternoon in 1989, when he was asked to visit a troubled young man in his Bronx parish. That man, Jesus Fornes, told him that he and another man had killed Jose Rivera in the park two years earlier. Fornes was owning up, he claimed, because two of his friends had been wrongly convicted of the murder and were about to receive sentence.

By coming forward now, Father Towle has made himself pivotal to an appeal hearing for one of the two men convicted of the murder, Jose Morales. He, and the other convicted man, Ruben Montalvo, were given sentences of 15 years to life in prison for the murder. After hearing the priest's belated testimony, the judge in the case indicated he would decide within two weeks whether to grant Morales a new trial.

Father Towle began to consider breaking his silence after Fornes was shot and killed in 1997. And yet he was fiercely attacked in court by prosecutors who argued that he was in breach of Catholic teaching by revealing the content of his original conversation with Mr Fornes, notwithstanding that the killer had since died.

One of the cornerstones of the Catholic faith is that nothing said in confession can ever be revealed. Confession, the Church instructs, is between the sinner and God, with the priest acting only as an intermediary. Father Towle told the court, however, that his conversation with Mr Fornes was not a formal confession, but a conversation only. He did concede, though, that after the conversation had ended, he gave Mr Fornes absolution, whereby the sins are forgiven by God.

"It was not a private confession," the priest said later, responding to questions from journalists. "He came to me with the deliberate purpose of making it not secret but of revealing it," he argued. "And then he did reveal it."

Indeed he did. Mr Fornes went to the courthouse on the day his two friends were sentenced and spilt everything to the lawyer of the defendants. His candour came too late for the court, however.

Father Towle, now a priest at St Ignatius Church in the Bronx, clearly spent years agonising over the implications of the case. "Naturally, it has taken a long time," he said. "There is nothing I am more careful about in my whole life than confession."

Among other people who had heard the same story as Father Towle was a legal aid lawyer, Stanley Cohen. When Fornes realised that he had come forward too late to avert the sentencing of his friends, he had gone to Mr Cohen for advice on how he could save them from a life in prison. Mr Cohen said he could not prevent it and that Fornes should stay silent unless he wanted to spend the rest of his days in prison himself.

Mr Cohen also testified at this week's appeal hearing. "I am here because I can't sleep, I can't eat and I can't live with myself," he told the court. He said it had always been "very clear that he [Fornes] had committed murder and these other men had not."

Father Towle eventually agreed to submit a written affidavit about what he knew two years ago. Before agreeing to testify, however, he felt he had to seek the advice of his church leaders. In the end, the New York Archdiocese told him that it would be appropriate to tell the truth.

"Father Towle, given the circumstances as we understand it, was not violating any church law by testifying," a spokesman for the archdiocese said. "It was not a sacramental confession, in which confidentiality would be absolute."