September 10, 1979 12:00 PM

Father Bernard Pagano had just finished his afternoon tea last February 27 when police arrived at the home he shares with his widowed half sister in rural St. Georges, Del. It was not a routine visit; they had come hoping to hear a confession—his own. Within hours Pagano, 53, assistant pastor at St. Mary Refuge of Sinners Roman Catholic Church in Cambridge, Md., had been charged with five counts of armed robbery. He was accused of being the “Gentleman Bandit,” a mannerly gunman who had committed a series of holdups in the Wilmington, Del. area in the previous two months. Pagano forcefully maintained his innocence. “I have never even heard of the Gentleman Bandit,” he insisted.

Anonymous tipsters, however, had told police Pagano resembled a composite sketch of the bandit that had appeared in a Wilmington newspaper, and seven eyewitnesses later picked him out of a lineup. According to police, Pagano was the methodical criminal who would walk into a suburban shop—always on a Tuesday or Thursday evening between 6 and 8 p.m.—flash a chrome-plated pistol and politely ask a clerk to empty the till. In all, the bandit’s take had come to a little more than $1,000.

Freed on $30,000 bail, Pagano returned to his parish and met questions head-on. “If people asked me, ‘Father, did you do it?’ I’d tell them, ‘No, I did not,’ ” he says. “Then they’d say to me, ‘Well, that’s all I had to hear.’ ” At first, the priest says, he didn’t take the charges too seriously. “I really felt everything would be straightened out in a day or two,” he explains.

When it wasn’t, Pagano’s parishioners stuck by him, raising $11,000 for legal expenses. Then last month, a few days after the priest’s trial had begun, defense lawyer Carl Schnee received an anonymous phone call linking a former postal worker named Ronald Clouser to the robberies. A private investigator discovered that Clouser, 39, had pleaded guilty in Pennsylvania to three robberies similar to those committed by the Gentleman Bandit, and that he was the owner of a chrome-plated handgun. Clouser at first denied any involvement in the Delaware robberies, but then broke down. “I found,” he said, “that I couldn’t be alone with myself.”

When Clouser admitted in court to three of the crimes attributed to Father Pagano, Judge Andrew Christie dismissed all charges against him. Delaware Attorney General Richard Gebelein officially apologized to Pagano, and the priest went immediately to St. Patrick’s Church in Wilmington, where he had been temporarily assigned during the trial, to say a heartfelt Mass of Thanksgiving.

Relaxing at home the next day, smoking and sipping Scotch from a mug, Pagano criticized police for the way they conducted their investigation, but vowed to turn his ordeal “into a positive experience.” He will ask, he says, to be named to his church’s Justice and Rights Committee. “I’m not opposed to the system,” he explains, “but I am opposed to the continuing errors in it.”

Born in Newark, N.J., the son of an immigrant shoemaker, Pagano has already been approached by a movie company interested in filming his story. Still, some loose ends remain. Newspaper articles allege that the priest, a graduate of Fordham, has claimed academic degrees that cannot be verified, and others have questioned his relationship with Mrs. Doris Doerner, 50, who was reportedly brought up in a Delaware orphanage. “Doris is my half sister,” Pagano declares angrily. “I don’t intend to prove it. I intend to just live it. Period.” A bartender, a schoolteacher and a salesman before becoming a seminarian at 28, Pagano realizes he is an unconventional priest. “I’ve always been a different kind of guy,” he says. “I’ve heard that before.” He has wide-ranging intellectual interests—every Lent he rereads Dostoevski—but takes his greatest pleasure in the company of children. “It’s their simplicity, their straightforwardness, their honesty that I like,” he says. “Kids don’t lie. They can smell you—that’s what it is.”

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