The prosecutor thought something was odd about the priest.
Father Stanley Idziak, about 50 years old, seemed overly talkative and nervous. He inhaled one cigarette after another, billowing like a smokestack as they spoke. Also strange was Idziak’s reaction when the prosecutor, J. Tom Morgan, explained why he’d asked for the meeting.
A man had called the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office claiming Idziak had molested him as a child at Stone Mountain’s Corpus Christi Catholic Church. Morgan, who’d faced many accused child molesters before, didn’t think Idziak seemed surprised.
It was as if the priest knew the question was coming.
“There are a lot of troubled youth out there,” Morgan recalls Idziak saying. “I’m only there to help them, but I’ve never done anything inappropriate.”
Morgan did not believe him.
But he knew the four-year statute of limitations had long passed. He only hoped the talk could give a hint about whether there were more victims, perhaps one with a prosecutable case.
That was the late 1980s. Over the next few years, more boys told similar stories in a lawsuit and in the press about Idziak, who refused to comment on the accusations. He became one of the most notorious priests in metro Atlanta as word spread that the Archdiocese of Atlanta had paid a settlement to one family and therapy costs for others.
Still, the prosecutor said he couldn’t find a case within the statute of limitations.
Families were devastated. Idziak didn’t have to beat any charges, just the clock.
Then in 2015, when Idziak was 80, the state legislature passed the Georgia Hidden Predator Act. It opened a two-year window for lawsuits to be filed against accused child abusers whose cases otherwise would’ve been too old.
Though Idziak couldn’t be criminally charged, suddenly it seemed he finally might be brought to court to face allegations he was one of the hidden predators.
How the case ended up this way – with monetary damages in civil court as the only possible recourse – isn’t as simple as a failure of law and authorities. The complications are many and are revealed through numerous public records, news archives and interviews.
This a story about time, how it can conceal a man families say betrayed them. How it can crawl for victims as wounds fester. And how, eventually, it can bolster courage as boys grow into men.
When the priest moved to Georgia in the 1970s, he was following a family with two boys.
He’d met the Larangos a few years earlier in his hometown, North Tonawanda, New York. The family ran a funeral home across the street from the church where Idziak landed as a member of the Pallottine religious order after studying in Rome.
The son of a steel worker in a struggling Polish-American family of 12 children, he was tall and dark-haired in his early 30s, with a slight belly. He drove a gaudy yellow car that made parishioners chuckle. He enjoyed telling stories to younger relatives about the inner-workings of the Vatican and yarns about demonic possession.
This was long before the prevalence of sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church came to full light.
The Larangos invited Idziak over for coffee one morning and found him charming. Because of his status, family members said in later news articles, they viewed him as divine, a walking conduit to their Lord and savior, not a threat to their sons, who were 8 and 3.
He liked to take the boys riding in the car to get a snack, they said. The boys saw him as a mentor, a friend. He visited so much the father gave him a key to the house.
When the family decided to move their business to Atlanta in 1977, Idziak wanted to join them. He applied to become a priest in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and lived with the Larangos while awaiting his assignment, which turned out to be their parish, All Saints in Dunwoody. He would serve there for a couple of years before going to Stone Mountain.
The sons have said the abuse began in New York and continued in Georgia, but it didn’t start immediately.
They said the priest let time work for him. He befriended them and their parents for years first. As trust built, he inched closer to the line until he was on the other side and the boys wondered how he got there.
Time drags for the tortured. The boys told of how it crawled in his office, in his bedroom. They said they wished he would stop the massages, with hands creeping over their young flesh, and the car rides on his lap.
They couldn’t understand why he would subject them to such pain.
“He was my closest friend,” Bill, the youngest of the Larango boys, said later. “It was so damn confusing.”
Neither brother knew what was happening to the other.
The oldest, Rick, showed signs something was wrong. He read the Bible incessantly and asked his mother to tell friends who called that he was grounded.
Concerned, the mother sought help: the priest.
With every touch that goes too far, a clock begins. Back then, the statute of limitations in Georgia was four years. Four years for a child to shake confusion and shame, and speak out in a show of defiance that could feel like going against God himself.
Morgan, who prosecuted more than 500 child abuse cases in DeKalb and became a renowned expert before leaving office as district attorney in 2004, said he and others worked hard to get that time lengthened in the late ’80s to seven years.
He remembers hearing from only the one victim who called about Idziak. The man was devastated and angry he’d missed his chance. Morgan said he was frustrated he couldn’t help.
Another family had raised allegations about Idziak molesting their two sons to Morgan’s predecessor, Robert E. Wilson, but they asked him not to indict.
Exile and reinvention
In the mid-80s, the Archdiocese of Atlanta sent Idziak to St. Michael’s parish in Gainesville. A lawsuit claims the move came after allegations surfaced that he molested three boys in Stone Mountain.
By 1988, he was scheduled to go to Washington, D.C. for treatment at a center that gave troubled priests therapy from “dusk to dawn.”
The Larango boys’ parents had never heard of accusations against him. But the mother, Janet, figured it out while reading a newspaper story about an unnamed priest facing allegations from Corpus Christi Catholic Church.
She leaned against a wall and fainted.
The parents confronted Idziak on the phone.
“Jan, there was no penetration,” she later told the AJC the priest said. “There was no penetration. There was no penetration.”
After D.C., Idziak went to a treatment center on the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Albuquerque Villa was run by the Servants of the Paraclete, a congregation founded in the 1940s to help troubled priests.
Idziak lived with other priests in the small nondescript compound, surrounded by short stucco walls adorned with a mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in an average neighborhood.
Atlanta Archbishop James P. Lyke made it clear he would “never, ever” be recommended for ministry again and urged him to give up the priesthood, church spokesman the Rev. Peter Dora said in 1993. Idziak turned in his collar the same year.
But some felt the church had already protected Idziak and others by underestimating the broader problem of abuse and quietly shuffling them to new parishes or treatment centers. Janet Larango also was angered that the Archdiocese of Atlanta never would acknowledge Idziak’s alleged guilt, even though it paid what she called “hush money” to victims.
Court records have shown the Archdiocese of Atlanta settled a 1991 lawsuit with one Stone Mountain family for more than $500,000. The archdiocese also agreed to pay therapy costs for the Larango boys, as well as others.
The church said in a subsequent AJC article the money wasn’t an admission of guilt, but “a recognition of a serious claim and obvious anguish on the part of the family.”
Janet Larango, who said her family wouldn’t take a settlement requiring silence, wasn’t satisfied to see Idziak get to leave the priesthood a free man.
“I worry about what he’s going to do on the outside,” she told the AJC after hearing he turned in his collar. “But he was doing it when he was a priest and being protected. Maybe on the outside, somebody might give him what he deserves.”
John Burdges, a Gwinnett County attorney, hoped to be that person.
He was enlisted some years back to represent a man charged with DUI. As the second DUI came, followed by a third, Burdges wondered what was wrong. His client also attempted suicide multiple times.
“There’s something eating at you,” the attorney said to the client one day while helping admit him to a treatment facility.
The client finally said a priest had molested him for three years at Stone Mountain’s Corpus Christi church, until he was 15, but he wouldn’t say which priest.
The attorney and client dropped it until late last year when Burdges got a call from the client’s father about the Georgia Hidden Predator Act.
They had just a few months left to sue.
Secrets held close
After leaving the church in 1993, Idziak moved into Albuquerque’s Queen’s Point apartments, a modest brick complex flanked by mountains and a Baptist church.
It was a chance to pretend the last several decades hadn’t happened.
He stood in his doorway, smoking cheap cigarettes from a nearby Indian reservation, saying hi to the passersby.
Tom Costigan thought he knew his neighbor, Stan.
Costigan, a decade younger, found Idziak occasionally ornery and cagey with personal details, but Costigan thought Idziak was interesting for chats on the lawn.
Years went by before Idziak let slip that he used to be a priest.
A devout Catholic, the neighbor suspected there was more to the story, but he didn’t want to pry. He asked the old priest to Mass; the old priest declined.
Another time, Costigan, who had lived in Decatur as a boy, mentioned Stone Mountain. Suddenly, Idziak walked in his apartment and shut the door on his friend.
Other neighbors said Idziak didn’t talk about his past. One said Idziak claimed to be a retired Target cashier.
Word of his past troubles apparently hadn’t reach Queen’s Point apartments.
And, in the end, Idziak wouldn’t have to deal with his new friends finding out. Time would help him again.
As Burdges was building a case late last year, Idziak’s health was failing.
At 82, he could hardly walk, see or hear. Neighbors say he sat at his dining room table alone with the TV blaring. He didn’t seem to be watching or listening. It was just noise in the background.
He had taken a bad fall and relied on neighbor Allan McClure to drive him to the grocery store for Klondike Bars and Ensure, to the reservation for smokes, to Walk In Wills to settle his final affairs.
Idziak told McClure he wasn’t afraid to die.
In December, Idziak was walking even slower than usual and looked thin. Looking to prove he felt just fine, he made a show one day in the apartment, chugging an Ensure and acting as if he was about to dig into a carrot cake, but McClure thinks he never actually touched it.
On Jan. 3, 2017, no one had seen Idziak in four days.
An apartment complex employee and McClure went in to check on him.
The old man lay dead face up on the floor with a cane and fallen chair nearby. McClure looked around and noticed something he hadn’t seen in the apartment before.
“Where most people had pictures on the wall,” McClure said, “he had a couple of very large DO NOT RESUSCITATE signs.”
Paramedics also found paperwork instructing against CPR.
Burdges said his client, now 47, had dreamed of standing up to the priest, of showing him that he wasn’t afraid anymore.
But the lawsuit wasn’t ready until nearly three months after Idziak’s death. The death hadn’t shown up in the background check ordered by Burdges, possibly because of a delay in the death certificate being issued.
Told by a reporter Idziak was dead, Burdges informed his client. The man hardly reacted, seemed numb to the news, the attorney said.
They filed a new suit against Idziak’s estate. In it, Burdges, who had his client’s name sealed in court filings, argues for damages in excess of $1 million for the physical and mental pain endured. The suit also notes that the Archdiocese of Atlanta has paid some $90,000 for the client’s treatment.
Idziak’s estate, which he left to family, was worth only $62,000, according to his will.
Told of the death, the Archdiocese sent a brief statement: “We in the Archdiocese of Atlanta abhor every instance of abuse. Now, as then, we care deeply about the survivors…”
Nearly every relative of Idziak reached by the AJC declined to comment.
Donald Angelo, Idziak’s nephew, a retired journalist who lives in New York, said he always felt his uncle was falsely accused. He thinks Idziak chose to leave the church and “dissolve away” so the allegations wouldn’t cause further embarrassment to the cloth.
Today, as ever, he prays for his uncle.
Idziak finished life with more secrets than friends. Time might’ve spared him from prosecution, but not from isolation as he smoked alone with the TV blaring white noise, as he fell to floor alone.
When Rick Larango heard Idziak was dead, he said he felt sorrow.
“I have refused to carry hate in my heart for the rest of my life,” said Larango, who was 8 when the priest befriended his family. “I have forgiven him.”
For Larango, time finally helped.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.