Prominent New York Priest Is Investigated Over Sexual Assault Accusation

Prominent New York Priest Is Investigated Over Sexual Assault Accusation

A nationally prominent Catholic priest is under criminal investigation after a security guard assigned to his church accused him of sexually assaulting her on Election Day, the Manhattan district attorney’s office said on Friday.

The priest, the Rev. George William Rutler, 75, is accused of watching pornography and masturbating in front of the guard, Ashley Gonzalez, 22, without her consent in his office at the Church of St. Michael the Archangel. He then attacked her physically and sexually when she tried to flee from the room, Ms. Gonzalez told the police.

In a letter to his parish after the accusations surfaced, Father Rutler denied Ms. Gonzalez’s claim that he “improperly touched her.” But he did not respond to her allegation that he had watched pornography and masturbated in front of her.

Part of the alleged encounter was recorded by Ms. Gonzalez on her cellphone. She provided the video clip, which shows a man who fits Father Rutler’s physical description, to law enforcement officials and to The New York Times.

Father Rutler, one of the most influential parish priests in the United States, is a well-known figure in the world of Catholic conservatism, and has been outspoken in his criticism of liberalism and the pontificate of Pope Francis.

He is the author of dozens of books, and has hosted a show on Eternal Word Television Network, a Catholic channel available in 140 countries, since 1988. He also gained attention after ministering to firefighters at ground zero on the morning of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office said in a statement that its criminal investigation into the matter was “active and ongoing.”

“We encourage anyone with relevant information to contact our office,” the statement said.

In an interview with The Times, Ms. Gonzalez said that Father Rutler had invited her to rest on a couch in his office when she began a short-term assignment as a guard at the church during the week of the election.

On Nov. 3, her second night of work, the priest walked into the office at the Midtown Manhattan church shortly after she started her break a little after 1 a.m. and began to check election results on his desktop computer, Ms. Gonzalez said.

But after a few minutes, she said she heard “sexual noises” and saw Father Rutler watching gay pornographic videos on his computer with his right hand in his pants.

Ms. Gonzalez said she was paralyzed by fear and convinced that no one would believe her word over that of a priest. So, she said, she used her phone to film Father Rutler at his desk. The video clip of the episode lasts 19 seconds.

“I didn’t know what to do in that moment so I texted my mom and said ‘I think I’m about to get raped,’” Ms. Gonzalez said. She shared texts with The Times whose time stamps and dates appear to support her account of that night.

“I started recording him,” she added. “That was my first instinct. If you know me, I record right away, which is anything and everything.”

Ms. Gonzalez said that when she got up and tried to leave the room, the priest blocked her exit, fondled her breasts and slammed her against an office wall before she fought him off and fled.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, Joseph Zwilling, said it was cooperating with the district attorney’s investigation. Mr. Zwilling said the archdiocese, which is led by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, would conduct its own inquiry once prosecutors had finished theirs.

“Father Rutler, after discussions with the archdiocese, voluntarily stepped away from his duties as pastor for the good of the parish and the archdiocese,” Mr. Zwilling said. “He does not have an assignment at this time. He is not serving as a priest.”

Eternal Word Television Network, the channel that has carried Father Rutler’s show, removed videos of him from its website after Ms. Gonzalez made her allegations last month.

Father Rutler has been the pastor of the Church of St. Michael the Archangel since 2013. The church’s website still lists him as pastor and also has links that people can use to buy his books and videos of his lectures.

“After consultation with Cardinal Dolan, who has been supportive, and for the good of our parish, I have willingly offered to step aside from my duties in our beloved parish,” Father Rutler wrote in the letter to the parish.

The accusations against Father Rutler come as New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, has been investigating Catholic dioceses in the state over their handling of sexual assault claims, including the powerful Archdiocese of New York.

Credit…Rob Bennett for The New York Times

The 19-second clip, which Ms. Gonzalez recorded as she sat in the back of the office on the couch, shows a man who looks like Father Rutler sitting in front of a computer and watching a gay pornographic video. Framed pictures of the pope and two cardinals hang on the wall above the desk.

Ms. Gonzalez, who is five feet tall, said she escaped from the room after elbowing Father Rutler forcefully in the chest and knocking him off balance enough for her to open the door. She ran through the church hallway and onto 34th Street, she said. It was almost 2 a.m.

Ms. Gonzalez said she then went to the nearby police precinct to file a report.

She said she had not been contacted by the police or the archdiocese in recent weeks, although she did speak to prosecutors last month. Earl S. Ward, her lawyer, said that prosecutors had the video of the priest that Ms. Gonzalez filmed.

Father Rutler has a decades-long following among Catholic conservatives. He is known for his criticism of Pope Francis, whom he has compared to Neville Chamberlain; his hostility to liberals (“They don’t believe in love because they don’t believe in souls”); and his description of “abortionists and the sodomites” as being “united in a commitment to death and to self-destruction.”

In a Fox News podcast interview last year, Father Rutler said he was skeptical of people who claimed they had been abused by Catholic priests. He said he believed that many people who claimed to be abuse victims were exploiting the church’s wider abuse scandal to make money.

“We now have this phenomenon of recovered memory, someone thinking something happened 40 or 50 years ago involving a so-called perpetrator, an alleged perpetrator, who is dead now and cannot defend himself,” Father Rutler said in the interview.

He added, “On the whole, I don’t know any institution that has gone out of its way to make reparations and to provide counseling as much as the church has.”

Ms. Gonzalez said she has not been able to return to work at M.G. Security, the firm hired by the church last month, since that night at St. Michael’s. She said the incident had sent her into a depressive spiral.

“It affected me in a way where I never want to go to church again,” she said.

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