An unusual suspect

After 20 years of work, Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Anthony Pinizzotto, 57, has called it quits - not with the priesthood, but with the FBI.

The man with five degrees, a thick book of compiled publications and three heavily researched government studies to his name retired earlier this summer after spending the last two decades using forensic psychology to study law enforcement stress reactions and safety issues. Forensic psychology is the "blend between the law and psychology" that deals with connecting, examining and presenting evidence, he said.

The FBI is not a typical career path for a priest, to be sure, and Father Pinizzotto said he never "wanted, imagined or desired working for the FBI," when he was first ordained.

"I'm more surprised than anybody," said the Pennsylvania native, speaking from his office at St. Timothy Parish in Chantilly, where he currently is in residence.

Father Pinizzotto's resume is a remarkable 12 pages long, with lists of universities attended, publications written and projects completed. Only a small section refers to his being ordained as a priest.

Father Pinizzotto's faith journey is pretty straightforward: Impressed by the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales who taught him in grade school and drawn to their recognition that the human person is fundamentally good, he felt a calling to the order. His aspiration: to teach at Northeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia.

But while earning his degree in English at Allentown College in Allentown, Pa., in 1974 (now De Sales University), he was drawn to the area of social justice. After his ordination in 1978, wanting to find a practical application for this new passion, he did coursework in the administration of criminal justice at American University in Washington, D.C., where he was earning his master's in theology at De Sales Graduate School.

His classes at American led to a three-year stint as an in-uniform reserve police officer with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington in the mid-1970s.

"I had, up to that point, known that there was evil in the world, but now I was putting handcuffs on it," he said. "Those fields of law and psychology grew together and that's when I became fascinated about the area of forensic psychology."

He earned a master's in the subject from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York in 1981, followed by a doctorate in psychology from Georgetown University, with a concentration in forensic psychology. While earning his doctoral degree, Father Pinizzotto began teaching psychology at Georgetown and was recruited by the FBI in 1988 to investigate the killings of on-duty law enforcement officers.

That subject resonated with the priest.

"I responded to those calls and I'm still here," he said, referring to his time with the D.C. police a decade earlier. Why were these particular officers killed, he wanted to know. He spent the next 20 years trying to figure it out, with the hope of preventing more officers from being killed.

Though a priest working for the FBI is an unusual partnership, Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Barry Strong, director of province administration the eastern province of the Oblates, said that no matter what, the order's charism is to promote the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales.

"Our founder desired that we would jump into the world with both feet," Father Strong said. "Our constitution basically tells us that the apostolate of the Oblate is not in any way limited to any specific service. While this might be unusual for a priest to be working in the blend of life that Father Tony has, it's not out of the realm of possibility."

As Father Pinizzotto put it: "My superior looked at this and said 'this is valuable."

So he accepted the position at the FBI, first as clinical forensic psychologist in the Uniform Crime Reporting Program and later as a senior scientist.

His first publication for the U.S. Department of Justice, published jointly with Edward F. Davis in 1992, was "Killed in the Line of Duty: A Study of Selected Felonious Killings of Law Enforcement Officers," which looked at the offenders, victims and circumstances surrounding the killings of law enforcement officers in Washington. It took three years for the study to be completed, during which time Father Pinizzotto visited prisons all over the country, spending an average of four hours with each offender.

"I was constantly challenged to bring back that perspective of St. Francis de Sales on human nature," he said - that the human person is fundamentally good.

"Killed in the Line of Duty" was just a springboard: Father Pinizzotto authored numerous articles as well as two other major studies: the 1997 publication, "In the Line of Fire: Violence against Law Enforcement," and "Violent Encounters: A Study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nation's Law Enforcement Officers" in 2006.

"What I helped to do in these studies was give back to (the officers) what they gave to me," he said.

In addition to his research, Father Pinizzotto spent the last 13 years teaching behavioral science courses at the National Academy in Washington and the FBI academy in Quantico.

Following his retirement from the FBI and Georgetown, Father Pinizzotto moved from St. William of York Parish in Stafford, where he had been living, to set up shop at St. Timothy.

While in Chantilly, he'll serve as a consultant to Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde, most likely in the Child Protection Office. He currently serves on the bishop's advisory board on the protection of children/young people and the prevention of sexual misconduct and/or child abuse.

Father Pinizzotto will maintain his ties with local law enforcement - this time the Fairfax County Police Department - to look at how clinical forensic psychology can be included in their program to increase officer safety awareness that is already there," he said. "I will simply be enhancing what they already have."

The transition back to the "on-the-street approach to law enforcement," should be a smooth one, he said. "It has a very practical approach to dealing with people."

Though Father Pinizzotto never fulfilled his dream of an Oblate life as a parish priest and high school teacher, the priest is hardly dissatisfied with how his career evolved. "I've gotten to be Father O'Malley and Dr. Freud," he said, laughing and calling it the "best of both worlds."

Even though his career has been atypical, Father Pinizzotto said he doesn't feel like he was cheated out of his vocation as a priest.

"Whatever we do, if our intention is to further the kingdom of God, that is where we find holiness," he said. "I firmly believe since I never intended any of this to happen, that I'm following what Our Lord wanted me to do. I'd like to think that the work I have done has helped somebody."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2008