One week ago, the Rev. Bernard T. Pagano was on trial in a Wilmington court as northern Delaware's accused "Gentleman Bandit." Now he is on the verge of national celebrity as the priest who was done wrong.
Pagano, who was dramatically vindicated last week when a Pennsylvania man confessed that he, not the Roman Catholic priest, was the bandit, is scheduled to appear on ABC's "Good Morning America" show in New York Monday as the first stop on a television tour that will take him to stations in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.
"They called me," said Pagano today, when asked how his celebrity tour was arranged.
In addition to the many requests for newspaper, magazine and television interviews, Pagano will also be the subject of a book by a local Cambridge writer. Over the weekend, four Hollywood movie companies, including Columbia and Warner Bros., indicated interest in making a film out of the priest's story.
But today, at St. Mary's Refuge of Sinners' parish here, where he was serving as assistant pastor at the time of his arrest for the holdups, Pagano was once again just plain "Father."
He had come to celebrate mass among the people he had married, whose babies he had baptized and whose relatives he had buried -- the people who always believed in him and raised over $13,000 for his defense. They packed the small, tan brick church to hear him say that it was their prayers that helped him prove his innocence.
"We have given witnesses and testimony to all the world that we believe in prayer, petition and sacrifice," said the tall, trim 53-year-old priest, looking rested after the startling events of the past week.
Pagano had been charged with five counts of armed robbery and one attempted robbery in connection with a string of holdups at small Wilmington area stores last winter. Seven witnesses identified him in a police lineup and in court as the "Gentleman Bandit."
At one point during the service, Pagano's voice broke as he read this passage: "Jesus said to the 12 [apostles] 'Do you want to leave me, too?' Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go.'"
Pagano explained later that the passage reminded him of the occasion when he was asked whether or not he would leave the church because of the case. "Where could I go? Christ is what it's all about," said the priest, who was dressed in a shiny blue and white religious robe for the ceremony.
Pagano said it will be about a month before he knows his future assignment in the church. He said that Bishop Thomas Mardaga, his superior in the Wilmington diocese, told him to "take a rest."
He said, however, that he wants a job that will permit him to work at improving the criminal justice system to prevent cases of mistaken identity such as his. He said he is particularly concerned about the "improverished people" caught in the criminal justice system.
"If I didn't have all these people [behind me], I wouldn't be where I am. If it were a Hispanic or a black, I'm sure they wouldn't make it."
Speaking in a low conversational tone as he leaned casually against the podium in the front of the church, Pagano asked the parishioners to continue to pray for him because "there will be other kinds of crises in my life . . . "
"I must preserve always the image of the priesthood," he said.
Pagano also asked his parishioners to pray that he be allowed to keep his current life style. Unlike most diocesean priests, Pagano has his own home where he lives with a women he says is his sister. The two run a dog kennel together.
"I've always felt comfortable with myself, although some people have criticized me as being an unusual priest," he explained after the service.
Pagano asked the congregation today to pray for Ronald W. Clouser, the 39-year-old Pennsylvania man who confessed to the holdups. Later, John O'Conner, head of the defense fund for the priest, said Pagano wants half of the $13,000 raised to go to Clouser to help with his legal defense or to assist his three children.
During the service, Pagano took time to shake hands with the men, kiss the women and hug their children.
"Don't think I did not have those despairing times when I thought God is not with me," he told the parishioners, many of whom wept as he spoke. "When you feel all hope is lost, that's when God is closest to you."
After the service, Pagano, wearing his clerical collar with a powder blue leisure suit, and chain-smoking cigarettes, greeted his parishioners one by one at a brief reception at the church hall.
"I always prayed for you," one tearful elderly woman said as she embraced Pagano. "I never doubted you," another woman added. Pagano promised he would return again to Cambridge to make "the biggest spaghetti dinner you've ever seen" for his parishioners.