At first glance, the photo seems heartwarming: a man in his 60s, wearing a Santa suit and a grin as he wraps his arms around a boy.
In a different light, the image is unsettling. The man in costume is the Rev. Ted Podson, a former teacher at Devon Prep, an all-boys school on the Main Line.
Podson left the school in 1993 after allegedly sexually assaulting a boy. He was not publicly identified, charged, or barred from ministry.
Instead, Podson resurfaced as a parish pastor in Texas. In 2002, as the clergy sex-abuse scandal erupted, he again pulled up stakes, moving halfway around the world.
Now 64, Podson lives on a remote Philippines island, promoting himself as a mentor and renting an apartment he shares with teens. The Santa photo was taken last year.
The landmark sex-abuse trial that unfolded this spring exposed how the Archdiocese of Philadelphia failed to remove suspected pedophile priests. Lost in the spotlight were similar claims about other area priests, like Podson.
He was one of five religious order priests identified as "guilty of sexual misconduct with a minor" on a list compiled in 1994 by Msgr. William J. Lynn, then the secretary for clergy under Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua. Two other so-called extern priests were listed as suspected child abusers.
Each belonged to independent orders that for decades have staffed schools and parishes around Philadelphia. The orders are outside the control of the archdiocese, and accusations against their members, as Podson's case suggest, at times draw less scrutiny than those involving priests from major dioceses.
"It is so much easier to deal with the dioceses than with the religious orders," said Thomas S. Neuberger, a Delaware lawyer who has represented clergy-sex abuse victims in claims against the Wilmington Diocese, as well as two orders, the Norbertines and Oblates of St. Charles.
Neuberger said the independents fiercely protect their members and their secrecy.
"You are a made man when you join a religious order," he said. "They will run interference for you for life."
Suspected, not removed
Lynn's list of seven extern priests, which was among thousands of documents introduced at his trial, didn't include details about the clerics or accusations against them.
A review of public records and news reports shows that four of the men on the list were previously or have since been publicly accused, prosecuted, or sued for sexually abusing children.
Podson, a priest of the Piarist teaching order, which runs Devon Prep and other schools, was one of three who were never publicly named and stayed in ministry.
The two others, the Rev. Stanley Janowski and the Rev. DePaul Sobotka, are Franciscan friars who taught for years at Archbishop Ryan High School in Northeast Philadelphia. Both now live in Wisconsin.
Reached at his friary, Sobotka disputed the assertion in church files that he was a suspected molester.
"That must've been someone else," he said, though he acknowledged he didn't know another priest named DePaul Sobotka in Philadelphia.
Tim Reardon, a lawyer for his Franciscan chapter, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary province, also challenged the archdiocese's account. Reardon said Sobotka was once accused of misconduct with an adult, not a minor, but it was unproven.
The priest, who turns 78 this month, is retired from public ministry, he said.
Donna Farrell, an archdiocesan spokeswoman, confirmed that church files included a complaint about Sobotka's conduct with an adult. It was unclear how he landed on Lynn's list of suspected pedophiles, she said.
Farrell had no information about Janowski, a former vice principal at the school, who was cited on the list as guilty of child sex abuse.
According to Reardon, Janowski was twice accused of sexual misconduct with minors in Philadelphia. Reardon said independent investigators hired by the friars could not verify the claims.
"There was an investigation and the investigation was not conclusive," he said. "To us, he's not been established as being guilty."
Still, the friars agreed to pay a settlement to one of Janowski's accusers, Reardon said. The other sought no money but was "happy" with an assurance that Janowski would no longer work around children, the lawyer said.
The Rev. John Puodziunas, the provincial leader of the Assumption friars, declined to discuss Sobotka and Janowski. He questioned the relevance of airing such cases after so many years.
"I don't know why they are still looking at all this stuff," Puodziunas said.
A 'cool' priest
Podson apparently faced no restrictions after being accused. Reached last week on his cellphone in the Philippines, he declined to talk.
A review of public information and interviews offer a glimpse of his path from the leafy Philadelphia suburbs to a remote South Pacific island.
Ordained in 1976, Podson worked as a teacher in Buffalo before transferring to Devon Prep in 1985. He taught art history, religion, and other classes, and lived on campus with other priests.
Podson was among the younger faculty members, and the boys took to him as a "cool" and popular priest, according to former students who asked not to be identified discussing their alma mater.
Podson wore his collar loose. He told some students he had once been married - sometimes he wore a wedding band. In the summers, he arranged and led Devon Prep boys of all grades - the school had about 200 students in grades 7 through 12 - on trips across the country and the world.
Podson usually recruited young adults to assist him and serve as chaperones. Ellen Murphy, then a college graduate whose brothers attended Devon Prep, agreed to help on a 1993 trip to Greece, she said in a recent interview.
After the group returned home, Murphy said, a student she met on the trip told her that Podson had sexually assaulted him, more than once. Murphy said she believed the boy was in the seventh or eighth grade.
The student said his parents had reported the abuse accusation, Murphy said.
Rose Lombardo, a spokeswoman for Devon Prep, said the boy's parents took their complaint to archdiocesan officials and they shared it with school administrators. Devon Prep suspended Podson and he never returned to campus, Lombardo said.
"Efforts were made by school officials to determine if there were any other students who claimed to have been abused or mistreated by Fr. Podson," she said in a statement. "To date no other student or parent has contacted the school."
Lombardo did not explain the steps the school took, or respond to a request for more information.
Murphy and the alumni said they were never notified or interviewed about the abuse claim, or knew others who were. Tredyffrin Township Police and the Chester County District Attorney's Office said they had no record of a complaint or investigation involving Podson.
According to news reports, the priest went to St. Luke's Institute, a church-run hospital in Maryland that treated clerics for issues including sexual disorders.
In 1995, he resurfaced in Amarillo, a poor region in the Texas Panhandle. Over the next seven years, Podson worked in three parishes there, including as a pastor. He resigned his post suddenly in June 2002, three days after U.S. Bishops pledged to remove from the ministry priests who sexually abused minors.
Amarillo Diocese officials declined to discuss Podson.
Within a year of his departure from Texas, Podson resettled in the Philippines. He found work as a hospital chaplain on the island of Cebu, and as a priest on nearby Olango, an island of six square miles that is popular as a wildlife sanctuary and a tourist destination.
Sister Victoria Clair, a nun who lives on Olango, said she met Podson on the island a year or so ago.
According to the nun, the priest has cultivated a reputation as a mentor and someone to prepare students for college - similar to the role he had at Devon Prep.
Clair said Podson said he rented an apartment in Cebu for himself and a group of "teen scholars" - boys around 16 - and told her that he pays younger boys to do chores around his home.
"I never got to know Ted very well," Clair said in an e-mail. "Almost every time he came to the hermitage, he had a young man with him, so we certainly never got into conversations with any depth."
Little to say
On Facebook, Podson posted dozens of photos from the islands, including images of the priest surrounded by children and celebrating Mass. The Facebook page was recently disabled, after The Inquirer began seeking information about Podson.
He answered his cellphone one night last week, but had little to say. "Contact my religious order office. Goodbye," he said, then hung up.
The Rev. Fernando Negro, who leads the Piarists in the United States, said Podson moved to the Philippines "in full knowledge of the Archbishop of Cebu" but deferred questions about Podson to Piarist leaders in Rome.
A spokesman for the order in Rome said Friday that its leader, the Rev. Pedro Aguado, was away and needed to review the situation in the Philippines before commenting. A representative of the Cebu Archdiocese did not respond to phone and e-mail messages.
Four years ago, Podson sought and apparently was granted Filipino citizenship. In the citizenship petition, posted online, a local legislator wrote: "Fr. Podson has greatly contributed to the moral, spiritual and social growth of the Philippines."
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