BY JOE RYAN
A Roman Catholic priest who worked in Manville was sentenced yesterday to one year in federal prison for groping a 16-year-old girl in the dimmed cabin of a trans-Atlantic jet bound for Newark.
The Rev. Tomasz Adam Zielinski, 33, admitted fondling the teenager from Belarus as she sat beside him on a July flight from his native Poland. She was traveling alone to receive medical care in Pennsylvania and screamed when the priest reached under a blanket and tried to unzip her pants.
U.S. District Court Judge Jose Linares called the crime "disturbing" and ordered Zielinski to immediately begin serving the maximum term recommended by federal guidelines.
"The fact that he is a priest makes his actions all the more reprehensible," Linares said during a hearing in Newark.
Zielinski, a former associate pastor at Christ the King Church in Manville, wore a gray suit as he stood before the judge. He said he deeply regretted causing the girl pain.
"I pray for her," Zielinski said.
The priest was in the United States on a religious visa and would probably be deported, Linares said.
The victim's parents lived near Chernobyl when a nuclear reactor exploded in 1986, causing widespread contamination and a legacy of birth defects, some studies show. For the last seven years, a humanitarian group has sponsored annual trips for the girl to visit the United States for dental and eye care.
Last year was the first time the girl had traveled alone.
She wound up sitting next to Zielinski, who was returning to New Jersey from a vacation in Poland. He drank wine and beer during the flight, a fellow priest has said.
After the cabin lights dimmed, the priest reached his hand under the girl's blanket and began groping, prosecutors said.
At first she remained quiet, too stunned to call out, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Judson Welle.
But when Zielinski reached for her zipper, the girl screamed.
"She could endure no more," Welle said.
The pilot emerged from the cockpit to see what happened. The flight crew moved the girl to a new seat, and she sobbed all the way to Newark Liberty International Airport, Welle said.
Members of a family from Blooming Glen, Pa., who host the girl each summer, waited for her to emerge from customs. She told them what happened, and the next day they called authorities.
Days later, Zielinski confessed to FBI agents.
Barbara Dorris, outreach director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, applauded the girl for coming forward.
"Because of her brave action, more families are now warned about this predator," she said.
The head of the Metuchen Diocese, Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski, removed Zielinski from his post at Christ the King days after his arrest. But the bishop has no further jurisdiction over Zielinski, who is a member of the Warsaw Province of the Redemptorist order.
A spokeswoman for the diocese, Joanne Ward, called the incident "tragic" yesterday.
"We pray that the victim and her family will now be able to move forward with their lives," she said.
More than a year after the crime, the girl remains distrustful of men and avoids physical contact, Welle said.
"It really impacted her," said Ruth Stella, whose daughter hosted the victim.
Joe Ryan may be reached at (973) 622-3405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click to view image: 'manville church'
|Liveleak on Facebook|