But Jesus said, suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 19:14)
Would you look at that face?
As an agnostic and recovering Catholic I never thought I’d type this sentence, but I can no longer tether my joy:
I love Pope Francis. Every single proclamation His Holiness utters intensifies my devotion; his refusal to condemn the gays, the fornicators and the atheists melts my heart.
His recent confirmation that all dogs do in fact go to heaven has secured my eternal allegiance. And yet….
I know his selection was a ruse.
The church was hemorrhaging members and it needed a representative capable of winning hearts and minds—the papal conclave was so desperate to get asses in the pews they couldn’t even wait for Pope Hitler Youth
to shuffle off to the big Berchtesgaden in the sky.
All organized religions are, at bottom, a business; profits are paramount.
The Church keeps the cash rolling in by any means necessary, and whether that entails appointing a new figurehead,
harboring pedophiles or subverting the course of justice the Church is more than willing to play ball.
In 1962 the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was so desperate to keep the collection plates full
that it attempted to quash a murder investigation.
Of a little girl.
Who was raped and strangled in the Church itself.
To allow Pope Francis’s adorableness to distract from the Church’s yet-unatoned for sins is a grave disservice to the memory of those who have suffered; the frontman may be different (and cuter!), but the Church is still the same.
October 22nd, 1962. Nervous and distracted, the middle-aged priest walked into Popkin’s shoe store at 129 Mill Street in Bristol, Pennsylvania.
“Do you have the time?” Father Joseph Sabadish asked the startled clerk—an odd question, as the clerk could plainly see the priest was wearing a watch.
Upon being informed that it was a few minutes before 4:30pm Father Sabadish had a follow-up question, a bizarre query in a shoe store: “Do you sell underwear here?”
A strange interaction, to be sure, but nothing about that autumn afternoon in Bucks County was routine; although she hadn’t yet been discovered a little girl lay raped and murdered in the choir loft
of nearby St. Mark church,
and for many residents life in the historic port town would never be the same.
Nine-year old Carol Ann Dougherty had pedaled her bicycle away from home just before 4pm that afternoon,
heading to the library to return two books and meet friends.
Her route took her past St. Mark Church, a foreboding stone basilica located at 1025 Radcliffe Street,
less than a mile from the Dougherty residence in Landreth Manor.
According to her father Carol Ann often stopped in to pray when passing by the Church, a practice encouraged by the nuns at the parish school where she was a fifth-grade pupil.
Whether Carol Ann was lured inside for nefarious purposes or simply popping in to say a quick prayer is unclear, and fifty years later it’s doubtful her reason for entering the Church will ever be definitively known.
When she failed to appear at the library as promised
Carol Ann’s friends began to search for her
and soon spotted her blue three-speed bike propped front of St. Mark, library books—The Unfinished House and The Spirit of Fog Island—still strapped inside her satchel. The books, incidentally, were mysteries,
the young bibliophile’s favorite literary genre;
Carol Ann’s choice of reading materials was prophetic,
as the events transpiring in the Church at that very moment would give rise
to one of Bucks County’s greatest mysteries
of all time.
Although they knew their friend was inside
Carol Ann’s playmates could not enter the Church;
at the time head-coverings for female worshippers were mandatory—good Catholic girls would never dream of entering a church bare-headed.
Carol Ann’s friends instead sat on the Church steps for a time and waited, and when Carol Ann failed to reappear they eventually gave up and went home.
A few minutes after the departure of Carol Ann’s friends
a female parishioner attempted to enter the Church and found it locked—an anomaly, as St. Mark was traditionally left open during daylight hours.
She rattled the handle on the heavy oaken doors for a few minutes hoping to attract attention, but ultimately she too gave up and went home.
At approximately 4:35pm Carol Ann’s mother Dorothy became worried when her daughter failed to return home.
She packed her younger daughter, Kay Ella, age three, into the family car and set off for the library.
As she motored past St. Mark
Dorothy spotted Carol Ann’s bicycle propped outside,
but like Carol Ann’s friends she was sans chapeau, and thus unable to enter—instead she opened the Church door,
now unlocked, and peered inside. The chapel appeared empty.
Call it mother’s intuition
or a message from on high:
although she couldn’t see Carol Ann’s body
from her vantage point in the doorway
Dorothy sensed something dire
she rushed home to alert her husband Frank,
a printer at The Bristol Courier.
Frank Dougherty raced back to St. Mark
and headed directly up
the winding staircase to the choir loft,
reportedly Carol Ann’s favorite place to pray.
At the top of the stairs lay
Carol Ann’s red plastic barrette,
and a few feet away under the loft’s stained glass window
sprawled a vision of horror: Carol Ann’s body, her blue pants pulled down to her ankles, a thin ligature bruise encircling her neck. One of her feet was bare—her killer had used her sock as a makeshift gag.
In her outstretched hand the murdered child clutched two pubic hairs,
presumably a keepsake from her killer.
Frank sprinted to the rectory next door to summon the Bristol Borough Police Department. “Come quickly!” he pleaded. “I think my daughter’s dead.”
As word of the murder spread throughout Bristol a crowd gathered in front of St. Mark,
eventually numbering a thousand strong;
seven hours into the somber vigil
Bristol Borough Police Chief Vincent Faragalli exited the Church to address the crowd:
“As of right now, we are without any leads,” he told the disappointed assemblage.
The crowd eventually dispersed, but the scarcity of viable leads would plague the investigation for the next five decades.
As is customary in the aftermath of
a sex crime,
the Bristol Borough Police Department
began a two-pronged investigation
focused on rousting local sex offenders
and grilling the people in Carol Ann’s ambit.
On October 26th, four days after the murder,
law enforcement received
their sole confession
in the case: Frank Zuchero,
a mentally challenged handyman,
confessed to Carol Ann’s murder but was unable to reenact the crime.
Further investigation revealed his confession had been coerced by an overly-zealous detective, and he was quickly released.
Realizing that the crime had likely been one of opportunity, investigators then turned their attention to St. Mark, hoping the staff could shed some light on the identity of parishioners who congregated at the Church in the afternoons.
After a single cursory interview with his underlings, however,
The Right Reverend Monsignor E. Paul Baird,
church head, refused to grant investigators further access to St. Mark employees.
Carol Ann might have been strangled in his Church, but clearly Monsignor Baird felt no obligation to assist in the search for her killer.
Even a single paltry interview with St. Mark priest Father Joseph Sabadish, however, was enough to pique investigators’ interest; nervous and evasive,
he had given detectives a patently false alibi:
the priest claimed he’d been performing his annual parish visitations on West Circle that afternoon, but he’d left notes on several houses indicating he’d actually been in the area hours earlier—his whereabouts at the time of Carol Ann’s murder were unknown.
To seasoned detectives his odd charade at Popkin’s shoe store seemed an attempt to establish an alibi, an especially damning action as at the time Carol Ann’s body had not yet been found.
A more in-depth look at Father Sabadish’s personal life revealed a pageantry of perversion;
the priest, an equal opportunity offender,
preyed on adult women
and pre-pubescent children of both sexes.
He was also well known at a local lingerie store
where he frequently shopped in mufti,
telling the clerk his numerous purchases
were gifts for his wife.
Although the full scope of his sexual deviance
would not be revealed for decades,
it was clear to Bristol Borough detectives
that Father Sabadish
had turned St. Mark parish into his own personal Sodom and Gomorrah.
A few weeks before Carol Ann’s murder Father Sabadish had begun making obscene phone calls to a woman in nearby Fairless Hills, a newlywed he’d met several years earlier at the parish home for unwed mothers. When the new bride told her husband about the harassment he confronted the priest, secretly taping the call; in the recording, subsequently given law enforcement,
Father Sabadish admits to making the calls and apologizes for his behavior.
Interestingly, during his obscene oratory Father Sabadish told the young bride he was sterile,
a bombshell revelation—although police had not released this fact to the media
the coroner had found a dearth of sperm in the semen sample obtained from the crime,
concluding that the killer was either “very young, very old, or impotent.”
In the days before Miranda warnings law enforcement had much more leeway in the interrogation of unwilling suspects,
and despite the Monsignor’s blanket refusal of cooperation
Chief Faragalli and another detective tailed Sabadish while he was making his priestly rounds;
at an opportune moment the lawmen snatched the priest off the street
and drove him to the local courthouse for a polygraph.
To the astonishment of detectives, the priest passed.
According to The Bucks County Courier Times, Monsignor Baird was enraged by this challenge to his authority,
leading to a public confrontation on Mill Street, Bristol’s main drag.
In front of several witnesses the Monsignor reportedly shouted at the police chief,
“Faragalli, you’re a Catholic and you’re persecuting Catholics with this investigation!”
“No, Father,” Chief Faragalli allegedly responded: “I’m a cop trying to figure out who killed that little girl in your church.”
Monsignor Baird may have been worried about losing parishioners due to scandal,
but there was one Catholic family with whom the Monsignor declined to curry favor; neither Monsignor Baird nor any of the St. Mark priests ever called to comfort the grieving Dougherty family.
When Frank Dougherty learned Father Sabadish was a suspect in his daughter’s murder
he accosted the priest while Sabadish was hearing confessions.
“Father, am I wrong in assuming a priest could have killed my daughter?” Frank Dougherty reportedly asked.
Instead of answering Father Sabadish fled,
leaving the heartbroken father alone in the gloom of the confessional.
According to The Murder Room, the polygraph session was the last time Bristol detectives questioned Father Sabadish;
as one of one of the investigators later told author Michael Capuzzo:
“We had no concrete evidence to tie Sabadish to the murder, except that he was very evasive during the interrogation.”
Soon after Sabadish passed the lie detector test
he was transferred away from St. Mark, and twelve more transfers in two decades would follow;
as Father Sabadish caromed from parish to parish and victim to victim,
the murder of Carol Ann Dougherty went cold.
In 1992, thirty years after Carol Ann’s murder, Bucks County Courier Times journalist J.D Mullane
wrote a six-part series about the crime which reignited community and law enforcement interest.
Mullane tracked down Father Sabadish, still a priest in good standing,
and confronted him about his history of sexual malfeasance and the discrepancies in his alibi.
Not only did Sabadish deny any involvement in Carol Ann’s murder,
he also denied making obscene phone calls to the young bride,
despite the fact that investigators had his admissions on tape.
Sabadish later accused Mullane of being “anti-Catholic” for sparking a reinvestigation into the crime, apparently the go-to diversionary tactic for clergy hoping to derail a criminal investigation.
In 1993 the Vidocq Society launched an investigation into Carol Ann’s murder
and made a shocking observation—the thin ligature bruise around Carol Ann’s neck perfectly matched the dimensions
of an alb, the thin rope belt Catholic priests tie around their tunics.
The Vidocq investigators also noticed many intriguing similarities between Carol Ann’s death
and the 1964 murder of Marise Chiverella,
a nine-year old parochial school student murdered in nearby Hazelton.
Like Carol Ann, Marise had last been spotted near a church
and like Carol Ann she’d been raped, strangled, and gagged with an item of her own clothing.
Although the murders are eighteen months and a hundred miles apart there’s an undeniably curious connection between the two crimes: the day before Marise’s murder Hazelton hosted a championship basketball game,
and the opposing team hailed from Bristol—more than a thousand Bucks County residents poured into Hazelton
to watch the game.
A coincidence? Possibly, but possibly not—the Vidocq Society urged a reexamination of all physical evidence
in both murders, hoping a DNA profile could be developed which would definitively link the crimes.
According to The Murder Room, however, Vidocq commissioner William Fleisher didn’t need to wait for lab results to identify Carol Ann’s killer: “It was the priest,” he told author Michael Capuzzo.
“We all knew it was the priest.”
Unfortunately a reexamination of the existing physical evidence in Carol Ann’s murder, including the two pubic hairs retrieved from her hand, was deemed “inconclusive” by the Bristol Borough Police Department. Law enforcement has never revealed the reason for the inability to develop a DNA profile, although it’s possible the semen degraded from improper storage and the pubic hairs lacked a testable root. Interestingly, even if DNA had been obtained from the pubic hairs some of the original investigators believed the strands unrelated to the crime;
the landing where Carol Ann’s body was found was reportedly strewn with random hairs and dust,
leading some detectives to believe she may have picked up two unrelated hairs during the attack.
In 1994 an investigative grand jury was convened to examine Carol Ann’s murder, and Father Sabadish was subpoenaed to give evidence.
In an unexpected twist, the grand jury seemed disinterested in the priest’s testimony, instead focusing on William Schrader, twenty-four years old at the time of crime.
Although Schrader had lived near St. Mark in 1962 he was currently a guest of the state of Louisiana, serving twenty years for an arson manslaughter conviction.
In 1963, months after Carol Ann’s murder, police received a tip that Schrader had been spotted near the Church on the day of the crime.
Like Father Sabadish, Schrader initially gave police a false alibi—he claimed he’d been at work at the Century Tool Company in Croydon until 4:30pm on the day of the crime.
When investigators checked his timecard, however, he’d actually punched out at 2:30pm that day;
like Sabadish, he subsequently passed a polygraph test.
William Schrader pleaded the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify, and this omission is presumably the red flag
that raised grand jurors’ suspicions.
Although anything is possible,
I’m not unduly alarmed by Schrader’s refusal to testify;
the invocation of the right to silence isn’t always indicative of guilt—his refusal to cooperate may have been rooted more in antipathy towards the justice system than a desire to obfuscate culpability.
Although he had a previous conviction for illegally discharging a shotgun
none of Schrader’s known crimes feature a sexual element, and the convict code can make some prisoners wary of cooperating with law enforcement regardless of the situation.
Without any physical evidence the grand jury was unable to issue an indictment,
but Vidocq commissioner William Fleisher remained certain of Father Sabadish’s guilt:
“It was the priest all along,” he told author Michael Capuzzo, disappointed by the grand jury’s wild-card focus on William Schrader. “The guy [Father Sabadish] was a monster.”
As often happens in high-profile cases,
over the years Carol Ann’s murder has garnered its share of trolls—Chief Faragalli received several odd phone calls and letters during the initial phase of the investigation,
and after his iconic six-part series in The Bucks County Courier Times J.D. Mullane was contacted by a tipster who claimed to know the identity of Carol Ann’s killer.
The phantom source, who asked to be contacted via a newspaper classified ad,
signed his communiques with the number “12.”
One day when Mullane was attending mass at St. Mark he exited the building and found a note tucked under his windshield wiper:
aside from being emblazoned with the number “12,” the paper was entirely blank.
It’s unclear if all these communications are the work of a single person
or if the would-be tipster has any actual knowledge of the crime,
although Vidocq Society member Frank Bender told J.D. Mullane he was certain the messages were from the killer: “He’s playing with you,” he explained.
Father Joseph Sabadish died in 1999 at the age of eighty-one,
‘til his last breath a Catholic priest in good standing;
he was eulogized at his funeral, apparently without irony, as a caring cleric who had “touched countless souls, especially those of children.”
The true extent of Father Sabadish’s paraphilia wasn’t revealed until after his death, when the priestly pedophilia scandal exploded;
in 2005 he was publically identified as one of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s sixty-three pedophile priests—this post-mortem censure his sole punishment for destroying countless lives.
Without physical evidence we’ll never know if Father Sabadish was guilty of killing Carol Ann Dougherty, but the guilt of Monsignor E. Paul Baird—and by extension that of the Roman Catholic Church—is incontrovertible.
Regardless of whether the Monsignor’s main objective was deflecting bad publicity or camouflaging Sabadish’s guilt,
he had no qualms about letting a murderous child molester roam free;
concerned only with the Church’s reputation,
to Monsignor Baird a dead little girl was collateral damage, far less important than the thirty pieces of silver tossed into the collection plate on Sundays.
To me one of the most fascinating aspects of the Carol Ann Dougherty murder
is the role played by traditional Catholic head-coverings.
If her playmates had had headscarves they might’ve tried to enter the Church, and finding the door locked,
they may have been curious enough about the unusual state of affairs
to wait around long enough to see the killer leave.
And I’ve always wondered about Carol Ann’s own headwear status.
Many newspaper accounts mention her barrette,
and The Philadelphia Inquirer describes her “blond hair a mass of tangles” at the crime scene—did Carol Ann have a hat or scarf that the killer knocked off her head?
Or did she enter the church bare-headed?
If Carol Ann entered the Church without a head-covering there is no question in my mind Sabadish was her killer—the only reason a Catholic schoolgirl of that era would enter a church without headwear is if a priest ordered her to do so.
The image of Dorothy Dougherty standing in St. Mark’s doorway, peering inside,
knowing deep in her heart that something awful has happened but too cowed by Church rules to enter the building
Out of curiosity I asked a still-practicing Catholic friend, mother of two gorgeous children, how she might handle a comparable situation today; are modern-day Catholics still terrified of breaking Church rules?
Au contraire, my friend assured me—today’s Papists are a different breed.
“If I thought my child was in trouble I’d walk into St. Patrick’s Cathedral buck-ass naked during Easter mass,”
my friend declared.
And when I asked if she would fear eternal damnation for doing so,
she said she absolutely would not: “Even God knows my kids come first.”
In many ways,
I think the murder of Carol Ann Dougherty is a cautionary tale—we Catholics let the Church become too powerful in our lives, and the most vulnerable members of our community paid the price.
The moral of today’s blog post? Never allow religious dogma to override common sense, even if the adorable imp on the papal throne launches a jihad of joy in your heart.
And always remember, regardless of whether you take your orders from Jesus Christ, Allah, or L. Ron Hubbard:
even God knows your kids come first.