Serbian priest sentenced to prison term for pulling gun

Author: Martha Raffaele
Date Published: 02/12/2004

LEBANON PA: A Serbian Orthodox priest who pulled a gun on the council president of the church where he had presided for 15 years was sentenced Wednesday to as long as 23 months in jail.

The Rev. Filip Velisavljevic was sentenced to concurrent sentences of six to 23 months in Lebanon County Prison for his convictions for simple assault and reckless endangerment.

Velisavljevic, 55, wore his clerical collar to the sentencing before county Common Pleas Judge Samuel Kline. He read a statement expressing “heartfelt sorrow” for what happened and said he had pulled the pistol on Frederick Pantelich, 69, only out of fear for his own safety.

Velisavljevic asked Kline to sentence him to community service instead of prison and even suggested that he be assigned to the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind.

“I realize my course of action was not the most appropriate,” Velisavljevic said. “If I had a chance to relive the experience, I would have chosen a more appropriate course of action.”

The priest, who was convicted by a jury in December, got into an argument with Pantelich over who would control church business.

The fight in December 2002 occurred in the social hall of the Church of the Holy Resurrection of Christ in Lebanon, where Velisavljevic presided until he was relieved of his pastoral duties. Velisavljevic’s pistol went off during the scuffle and the bullet apparently grazed his own foot.

Members of the church council have said the dispute was fueled by tensions over control of the church between older, American-born members and younger, European immigrants who joined more recently.

Velisavljevic’s lawyer, Patrick M. Reb, appealed for leniency, noting that the priest had no prior criminal record. Reb reiterated arguments he made during the trial that Velisavljevic had sought a transfer to another parish to escape his tensions with the board, but the bishop refused to grant his request.

“He views what happened as a failure on a number of levels,” Reb said.

But prosecutor Jennifer Gettle questioned whether the priest’s remorse was sincere.

“I would suggest that the defendant’s ‘heartfelt sorrow’ is a little late in this case. It’s basically a product of what he knows he’s facing,” she said.

In sentencing the priest, Kline told Velisavljevic he had acted selfishly to protect his position at the church and violated the trust of church members.

“The man they had chosen to lead their flock resorted not to the law of God, but to the law of the jungle,” the judge said. “The faith and safety of a lifelong member of the church was shattered. … The sanctity of the church property was desecrated.”

Velisavljevic has been working recently as a trash-truck driver, and Kline advised county officials that he would support putting the priest on immediate work release status.

After the sentencing, Pantelich appeared to be relieved that Velisavljevic was going to prison.

“I just wish he would have gotten more (prison time),” he said.

Velisavljevic also faces a civil lawsuit in which the council alleges he took at least $5,800 in religious items from the church, including a chalice set, an enameled cross, and a gospel book and cover. The lawsuit filed in August also accuses him of defrauding the church of about $10,000 in self-employment tax payments over a five-year period.

Some of the items have been returned to the church, but Velisavljevic has denied taking certain other items.