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Priest falls from grace

Sunday, September 21, 2003

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When a drunken 19-year-old Pitt football player fell 25 feet to his death through the ceiling of a Homestead church in June, the ministry of a middle-aged Catholic priest fell with him.

Rev. Henry Krawczyk is escorted by police last month, after being charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Billy Gaines. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

The death of wide receiver Billy Gaines cast a glaring light on the Rev. Henry Krawczyk, revealing two disparate personas.

Among his peers, Krawczyk conducted himself as a sober and dedicated parish priest. But among young men and older teenagers, according to accounts gathered from police records, diocesan statements and interviews, he partied as if trying to live out a worldly youth and young adulthood that had passed him by in the seminary.

Two men who said they drank with Krawczyk described him not as a predator but as a party animal. Despite one allegation of a sexual advance toward a college student in 1986, they said, they believed he sought acceptance, not sex.

Krawczyk, 50, is charged with involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and furnishing alcohol to minors for hosting a cookout at which he plied Gaines and other underage college students with cocktails. He is on administrative leave, banned from offering sacraments in public. Diocesan officials have not decided whether he can ever return to ministry.

He was raised by devout Catholic parents in the shadow of St. Raphael parish in Morningside, the oldest of seven children. At 13, he enrolled in the Bishop's Latin School, a now-defunct local Catholic day school for boys who were thinking of priesthood. The Rev. Frank Almade, who went through high school and seminary with Krawczyk, said Krawczyk seemed among those most certain of his call.

"He once said to me that the only thing he wanted to be in his life was a priest," said Almade, who was ordained with him in 1978 and is now pastor of St. John Vianney parish in Allentown.

From 1978 until June 18, the public record of Krawczyk's ministry appeared clean and peaceful. He served a textbook five years in his first two parishes and four years at his third. Then, in a sweeping diocesan reorganization that affected hundreds of priests, he was sent to a new, merged parish, where his 11-year pastorate ended with Gaines' death.

Priests and other church professionals who worked with him over 25 years gave mixed reviews. He was universally described as a good administrator, capable of organizing volunteers of all ages and willing to take on extra duties, such as decorating the church for Christmas. No co-worker who spoke on or off the record saw any signs of drunkenness. A few found him aloof and lacking in social skills. Apart from occasional get-togethers with his classmates, he didn't socialize with other priests, they said.

Beer and marijuana

The Rev. Leon Darkowski, now 86, thought highly of his young parochial vicar back in the early 1980s. Krawczyk had spent three years at St. Mark Czestochowa, McKeesport, his first parish, when Darkowski became pastor after 28 years as a Navy chaplain. They lived together in the rectory, and got along well, Darkowski said.

Krawczyk was diligent, and the only beverage Darkowski recalls him drinking was Coca-Cola.

"Father Henry was a very bright young man. He was an excellent preacher, he was very perceptive and he was very enthusiastic," Darkowski said. "He did a magnificent job as far as liturgy is concerned."

In 1983, Krawczyk transferred to Our Lady of Joy in Plum, where the Rev. Francis Marchukonis, now deceased, was an old-school pastor who brooked no nonsense from subordinates. Three years into his ministry there, a family brought a serious complaint against Krawczyk.

In 1985, said the father who complained, his mother was dying and his family was under great strain. He was impressed and grateful when Krawczyk offered to take a load off his shoulders by driving his 18-year-old son back and forth to college in eastern Ohio.

On one such trip in late 1985 or early 1986, the father said, Krawczyk loaded the car with beer and some marijuana cigarettes. Krawczyk drank the beer with his son and other students in his son's dorm room until his son passed out. After that, the father said, Krawczyk took the other students out to eat and offered them marijuana.

He said his son later awoke to find Krawczyk running a hand up his leg.

The family learned of the incident three weeks later when the 18-year-old and his brother were discussing homosexuality. The father doesn't believe there is an innocent explanation for Krawczyk's behavior.

'A fairly decent guy'

The family confided in Marchukonis, who was concerned and sympathetic, the father said. The pastor assured them that Krawczyk would receive counseling. Months later, after long thought and hearing that Krawczyk had given alcohol to other teens, the family contacted the office of then-Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua.

Diocesan officials questioned Krawczyk, who admitted providing alcohol, but denied having marijuana or making a sexual advance, said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese. Krawczyk was sent to a local psychiatrist for evaluation and counseling. Based on that therapist's recommendation, "he was permitted to continue in ministry," Lengwin said.

Lengwin said the family reported that they had complained to Plum police. When no police contacted the diocese, diocesan officials assumed that Krawczyk had checked out clean, Lengwin said.

It is unclear what the Plum police could have done, because the incident occurred outside their jurisdiction. The 18-year-old, in any case, was too young to drink legally in Ohio. It is not illegal to make a sexual advance toward an 18-year-old.

But the father said he continued to hear troubling stories about Krawczyk. He complained to the diocese when Krawczyk was transferred to St. Therese of Lisieux in 1988, because St. Therese had an elementary school and he thought Krawczyk should have an assignment that involved little contact with young people.

Joe Volkay, now 32 and a parole officer for Allegheny County, recalled Krawczyk as the parochial vicar who led a Sunday night youth group at St. Therese. Krawczyk would talk and then they would play basketball. He recalls no sign of improper behavior.

"He seemed like a fairly decent guy," Volkay said.

Volkay would be shocked, 10 years later, to meet a very different Henry Krawczyk.

Krawczyk was transferred to St. Maximilian Kolbe in Homestead on Oct. 27, 1992, amid some of the greatest upheaval that any diocese had ever experienced. His move was part of the first round in a two-year reorganization that dissolved 163 of 333 parishes and missions, closed 39 churches and created 56 merged parishes that often used several church buildings. The round that created St. Maximilian Kolbe from a merger of six parishes reduced 63 parishes and missions to 28 parishes. Scores of priests were moved.

'Rather good administrator'

Krawczyk had just been transferred and the clergy office was swamped with work in November 1992 when Krawczyk's former pastor at St. Therese, the Rev. Hugh Lang, contacted the office with a parishioner's complaint. According to clergy office records, Lengwin said, a woman had said that Krawczyk "had been providing beer to her 16- or 17-year old son. The record is unclear as to his age. And Father Krawczyk denied it."

Lang declined to speak about Krawczyk with the Post-Gazette. Lengwin said he presumed that the clergy office followed what was then diocesan policy to pursue the complaint and encourage the mother to report suspected illegal activity to the police. But the written record does not indicate what was done to follow up the complaint.

Asked specifically whether Bishop Donald W. Wuerl had been informed of the complaint in 1992, Lengwin replied, "Not that I'm aware of."

Asked if the complaint might have fallen through the cracks in an overwhelmed clergy office, he replied: "That I don't know. But even though they were harried, I would think that the office would have followed the polices and procedures established for them. That was our practice."

No one since 1992 has ever contacted the diocese with a complaint about Krawczyk, Lengwin said.

"How do you deal with it if you don't know it's going on?" Lengwin said.

The St. Maximilian Kolbe merger was rough sledding in the early days. It used four church buildings for worship, and parishioners from the two that had closed were angry. The parish seethed with socio-ethnic tensions stemming from eras when Slovak or Irish or Lithuanian ancestry determined whether you got to be a boss or do the dirty work in the mills.

A team of three priests was assigned to the parish, and each had his own rectory in a different part of town. Krawczyk, who would later be named pastor, occupied the former St. Anne's rectory, on a hill with a spectacular view.

The Rev. Edward McSweeney was at St. Maximilian Kolbe from 1992 until his retirement in 1994, and continued to help with funerals.

"I thought Father was always a rather good administrator, and he was able to hold together four disparate churches. That is really an admirable feat," McSweeney said.

He sometimes heard parishioners grumble that Krawczyk ignored them, but attributed that to merger tensions. After 1994, Krawczyk was the sole priest assigned to meet pastoral needs, say Mass at four churches and oversee a cemetery and countless buildings.

John Dindak Jr., the parish council president, credited Krawczyk with working extraordinarily hard to make a success of the painful merger. He had never known Krawczyk to take a drink, even when others urged him to.

"I have never seen him at any time engage in any kind of misbehavior or do something out of the ordinary," Dindak said. "Some of the gripes parishioners had about him were that he doesn't attend social functions. He says he's too busy, and that if he goes to one he has to go to all the others. He really didn't socialize too much."

Krawczyk also was abstemious when he joined his classmates two or three times a year for get-togethers, Almade said. With a third classmate, Almade and Krawczyk planned a vacation pilgrimage to Poland, but the third priest dropped out. Over two weeks in August 1997, Krawczyk and Almade visited more than five dozen churches, where Krawczyk spoke knowledgeably about church history, architecture and symbolism. Almade couldn't recall him drinking.

Trying to fit in

Volkay, a long-ago parishioner from St. Therese, encountered Krawczyk again in 1998 after the priest hired one of Volkay's friends to work in the cemetery. A former college athlete, his friend was unemployed after graduate school and Krawczyk soon promoted him to office work. And Krawczyk wanted to hang out with his employee's friends.

Krawczyk would have been in his mid-40s in 1998 when he began partying with the circle of young men 20 years his junior, Volkay said. All were of legal drinking age. They gathered at homes or went to bars far from Homestead. Krawczyk wore casual clothes and never identified himself as a priest.

"When we would go out, he would buy everything. That's why, sometimes, people would say, 'Oh, let him come along.' There were nights I'm sure he'd spend $200 to $300," Volkay said.

Krawczyk had turned a rectory laundry room into what Volkay described as "a bachelor pad," with plush red carpet and an impressively stocked semicircular bar made out of what appeared to be high-quality wood. After Gaines' death, police would later catalog more than 100 bottles of liquor. But Volkay never perceived Krawczyk as an alcoholic, even when the priest drank too much.

"I don't think he needed it. There were times we would play cards at his place, some low stakes poker. We wouldn't drink them nights," Volkay said.

The only sexual interest Krawczyk displayed in their company was toward women, Volkay said. He never heard Krawczyk ask a woman out, although he attempted what usually amounted to mild flirtation when they talked casually with women in bars.

Volkay recalled an incident at the now-defunct Bar Pittsburgh when he said Krawczyk kept trying to dance with a woman who wanted nothing to do with him. Sometimes, when the younger men spoke about their girlfriends, Krawczyk would make vague remarks implying that he, too, spent nights with a woman. The others didn't believe him.

"We all just thought he was trying to fit in," Volkay said.

'He's got a good heart'

By then his friends felt that Krawczyk was too pushy and that his behavior when drunk was sometimes embarrassing, Volkay said. Krawczyk had once called a female bartender vulgar names after she refused to serve him any more drinks, he said. Volkay said his friends tried to dodge Krawczyk by not saying where they were gathering. When that happened, his buddy who worked at the church reported that Krawczyk wouldn't speak to him for several days. To preserve their friend's job, Volkay said, they'd relent.

"It was, 'If you want to come out with us once in a while, that's fine, but show some class. You are a priest. Don't be getting blasted every time or hitting on women,' " Volkay said.

There was a pathetic desperation to Krawczyk's pursuit of their company, Volkay said. If they didn't tell him where they were, he would first call all of their houses, and then make the rounds in person. One night, they gathered in someone's basement game room. They heard knocking, figured it was Krawczyk and didn't answer, Volkay said.

"Within five minutes, here he comes, walking down the steps of [my friend's] house with a broken screen in his hand," Volkay said. His friend was furious. Krawczyk brought him a new screen the next day, Volkay said.

Their relationship ended around early 2001, when his buddy who worked at the church got another job.

Volkay believes Krawczyk genuinely liked his group of friends and would never have deliberately harmed them.

"I think he's got a good heart. I really do. ... I just think he wants to be so liked by everybody that he makes poor decisions," Volkay said.

"We talk about Father Hank, me and a couple of my buddies. ... I think that he didn't really want to be a priest. I think he was trying to relive them days that passed him by."

According to police records, last year Billy Gaines was hired to do occasional work in the St. Maximilian Kolbe cemetery. When the Oakland apartment that Gaines shared with five other Pitt students burned May 27, Krawczyk invited them all to move into a vacant convent adjacent to his rectory. That violated diocesan policy, Lengwin said.

Four students stayed just a few days, but Gaines and David Abdul, another Pitt player, remained. Krawczyk knew that none of the students was old enough to drink, but he supplied them with alcohol and watched the Playboy Channel with them in his rectory, police documents said.

Six days before Gaines' death, the affidavit said, Abdul was out of town and Gaines was scheduled to drive to Philadelphia for a wedding the next day. He planned to stay that night at a friend's apartment so he wouldn't be alone in the convent. But when Gaines stopped at the convent to get clothes, Krawczyk was waiting with a bottle of rum, the affidavit said.

"Gaines later relayed to his friends that he did not want to drink and drive, but felt compelled to drink with Krawczyk because Krawczyk was providing him with a place to live. Consequently he felt pressured into having multiple drinks with Krawczyk before leaving for his friend's apartment," investigators wrote.

Krawczyk had planned a cookout for his house guests and their friends for June 17, police said. The six original roommates attended, and Krawczyk offered to mix exotic drinks they chose from a collection of bartenders' recipe cards that he had.

Shortly after 2:30 a.m., Gaines fell from a crawl space that he and Abdul were exploring above the church ceiling, police reports said. He died nearly 21 hours later at Mercy Hospital. His blood alcohol level was 0.166, well above the Pennsylvania standard of 0.10 for legal drunkenness for motorists.

According to the affidavit, one of Gaines friends returned to the convent the next day to retrieve his car. Krawczyk was remorseful and said he should have kept the entry to the crawl space locked. The student replied that he didn't blame Krawczyk, and Krawczyk responded, "Yes, but I'm the adult."

He told the student that "his life was over," the affidavit said.

Krawczyk will have been ordained 25 years next week.

"As my classmates and I mark our silver jubilee of ordination this fall, I feel a dark shadow over our celebrations," Almade said. "A young man tragically died in June, and our classmate, Father Hank, is struggling with the consequences of what seem to be very bad decisions. My heartfelt prayers go out to Mr. Gaines' parents and family, and to my friend, Hank Krawczyk."


Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at arodgersmelnick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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