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Bernard Pagano, 81, priest cleared of armed robberies

WILMINGTON, Del. -- The Rev. Bernard T. Pagano, a maverick Roman Catholic priest who was accused and then cleared of armed robberies by a suspect called the ``Gentleman Bandit," has died at 81.

He died after a stroke on Aug. 1, according to The (Wilmington) News Journal.

Father Pagano was suspected of committing nine armed robberies in Delaware and Pennsylvania in early 1979 in which a polite, middle-aged man pulled a gun on store clerks and demanded money.

A woman who said she was Father Pagano's lover gave police photographs of him because he looked like the composite drawings of the suspect.

During his trial in Delaware in 1979, several eyewitnesses said the lanky priest, then 53, was responsible for the robberies. In an intensely followed trial, Father Pagano drew attention for his cavalier attitude and playing racquetball during a break in the trial.

Then Ronald W. Clouser, a man from the Philadelphia suburb of Brookhaven, Pa., showed up with a lawyer and said he was the Gentleman Bandit. Although his hairline was not receding as much, Clouser closely resembled the priest.

A 1981 made-for-TV movie, ``The Gentleman Bandit," sympathetically retold Father Pagano's ordeal.

But for some law enforcement officials, there was more to the story.

Norman Cochran, who then was the Delaware State Police superintendent, said Monday that he is convinced Father Pagano committed several robberies. He also believes Clouser committed robberies around the same time in areas north of Wilmington.

``The ones that we charged Father Pagano with were south of the city," Cochran said. ``The modus operandi was entirely different."

Cochran said Clouser touched his victims in a sexual way -- something he said Father Pagano did not do.

Despite the misgivings of authorities, the case against Father Pagano was dropped and prosecutors apologized. Clouser pleaded guilty and served a prison sentence.

Father Pagano, the associate pastor at St. Mary's Refuge of Sinners in Cambridge, Md., at the time of his arrest, had once ruffled the feathers of church higher-ups when he entered a charity wrestling event as ``The Mad Monk."

After he was cleared of the robberies, he moved to New Jersey, where he was an advocate for people wrongly accused of crimes and a parish priest at St. Mary of Mount Virgin Church in New Brunswick.

He also spent about five years in the 1990s as a chaplain at the Veterans Administration hospitals in Lyons and East Orange, said Tom Malek-Jones, chief chaplain for the facilities.

``He didn't make much of that story" about his time as a suspect, said Malek-Jones .

Father Pagano, a World War II airman, was valuable for his work with veterans of that era and did not seem like someone who would have committed a robbery, Malek-Jones said.

``There isn't a person in this VA who would think about anything except exactly what the TV show said," he said.

Father Pagano retired a few years ago and had been living in Wind Gap, Pa.

Father Pagano was to be buried in New Jersey today after a funeral Mass in New Brunswick presided over by Bishop Michael Saltarelli of the Diocese of Wilmington.

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