The strange case of the tall, gaunt Father Bernard Pagano and the “Gentleman Bandit” went to trial last week, leaving the Roman Catholic community in Wilmington, Delaware, bewildered. Pagano, 21 years a priest, is beloved by his parishioners and praised lavishly for his work with the sick. But he is also charged by state police with six counts of armed robbery. And the investigations that led to the charges shed an unusual and unexpected light on the life and works of this priest. He turns out, for example, to be something of an entrepreneur—and there is real doubt that the woman he lives with is, after all, his half-sister.
According to the prosecutors, Pagano’s style as a holdup man was much less fiery than the one he used in the pulpit. Rather, they allege, he calmly strolled into six Wilmington-area stores last winter, pulled out a tiny, chrome-plated pistol and politely ordered: “Give me the money, please.” On one occasion the nattily dressed, fedorahatted gunman added, apologetically: “I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t have to.” Pagano became a suspect after a member of a parish he served in 1972 saw a composite picture of the “Gentleman Bandit” in a newspaper. It looked just like the priest. Later, eight witnesses picked him out of a police lineup and he has since failed three lie-detector tests. Not only that—when the authorities started checking, his background was revealed as something less than impeccable. When he applied for a
teaching position at a local college, for example, he said that he had a doctoral degree from the University of Pittsburgh and had taken postgraduate courses at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Illinois. When asked, these schools could find no records of Pagano as a student.
Then there is the question of his lifestyle. While most diocesan priests live in a rectory with their colleagues, Pagano has spent most of the past 15 years with a Wilmington widow, Doris Doerner. He says that she is his half-sister, but records show that Doerner was born in Philadelphia and reared in a Delaware orphanage while Pagano was born
in Newark, New Jersey, and reared in nearby Kearny. Again, although it is unusual for priests to acquire property, he and the widow are, according to tax records, joint owners of a $50,000 house on two acres of land. They run a dogkennel business on the premises and, it is said, Wilmington diocesan authorities acted a few years ago to stop Pagano from charging for a private counselling service he had set up.
For his part Father Pagano has gently maintained his innocence throughout, claiming mistaken identity in the case of the robberies. He has continued, on bail, his tireless work as the popular assistant pastor of St. Mary’s Refuge of Sinners’ Church. And one of his friends, teacher Art Renkwitz, compares him to Robin Hood. “He worked with kids in trouble, he worked with adults, he saved marriages,” said Renk-
witz. “Just like Robin Hood, he would always be where the people needed him.”
The one missing link in the police case, they say, is motive. Pagano has total assets of around $25,000, so he scarcely needed the $2,000 he is accused of taking from the stores. On the other hand, some people feel his own sermons may provide a clue. Alongside quotes from such intellectuals as Karl Jung and Sigmund Freud, Pagano also had a favorite line from Flip Wilson. The one that goes: “The Devil made me do it.” William Lowther
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