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PRIEST WILL PLEAD GUILTY TO CRACK COCAINE POSSESSION

A Catholic priest caught buying $20 worth of crack during a police sting operation in January is scheduled to plead guilty to misdemeanor cocaine possession Monday in U.S. District Court.

The Rev. Frank J. Tuchols, 49, has reached a plea deal with the U.S. attorney's office. He will appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Carol E. Heckman, his attorney confirmed Thursday.

The plea would make Father Tuchols, director of pastoral care at Children's Hospital, the second local priest to be convicted in a federal cocaine investigation in the past year.

Agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration briefly took Father Tuchols into custody on the night of Jan. 19. The agents said Father Tuchols had placed an order with a city drug dealer -- who is a DEA informant -- to deliver $20 worth of crack to the priest's Virginia Street apartment.

"He has had problems with drinking, and three or four months ago, he began experimenting with cocaine through his association with a friend who was also doing it," said Father Tuchols' attorney, John P. Pieri.

Father Tuchols is a good person and a good priest, but one who has been troubled by the "very lonely life of the priesthood," Pieri added.

Pieri said Father Tuchols has been getting treatment in an out-of-state substance abuse clinic for the past month.

"He is making progress with his problem," Pieri said. "The diocese has been very supportive, and we have been told by the diocese that he will be accepted back at work."

Monsignor Robert J. Cunningham, chancellor of the Buffalo Catholic Diocese, said he is not sure what Father Tuchols' future assignments will be. He said Father Tuchols is not suspended from duty.

"Basically, his status is that he's a priest in our diocese, currently receiving treatment and counseling, and that treatment will continue as needed," Monsignor Cunningham said. "As for his return to duty at the hospital, that will be up to the hospital . . . I have had many complementary notes and discussions with people regarding his work there."

Children's Hospital spokeswoman Susan Asquith said Thursday she could not speculate, at this time, on whether Father Tuchols will return.

Court officials said Father Tuchols, with no previous criminal record, has a good chance of getting probation under the plea deal, which is subject to approval by Judge Heckman.

Pieri said the plea deal includes a provision to have the conviction expunged from Father Tuchols' record if he has no more difficulties a year after the plea.

Last April, another priest, Monsignor Stanley A. Ropelski, 62, of Lackawanna, pleaded guilty to a felony count of cocaine possession.

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