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MERCER COUNTY Votino pleads guilty to charge of corrupting morals of minor



Published: Tue, July 10, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The educator admitted seducing and having sex with three female students.

By HAROLD GWIN

VINDICATOR SHARON BUREAU

MERCER, Pa. -- Family members of some of the young women involved with Joseph Votino said nothing as they watched him plead guilty in court to one count of corrupting the morals of a minor.

They'll get their chance to make their feelings known and describe how the case has affected their lives when Votino, 44, of Syme Street, Masury, is sentenced at 9 a.m. Aug. 30, said James Epstein, Mercer County district attorney.

Votino is the former head boys basketball coach and dean of students at Kennedy Catholic High School in Hermitage. Under questioning from Common Pleas Judge Michael Wherry and Epstein, Votino admitted in open court that he seduced and had sex with three female students between January 2000 and April 2001.

Votino told the court he is now unemployed and has been taking prescription antidepressant medication the past two years.

He also admitted that he knew all three girls were under 18 and that he used his position at the private Catholic high school to target the young women for seduction.

Point of dispute: He responded to questions from the court and district attorney with "yes" and "yes, sir" answers, disputing only one claim. When Epstein asked if he had engaged in kissing, hugging and fondling with the girls on school property, Votino replied, "Kissing and hugging."

Epstein said later that Votino's version of what happened on school grounds will be challenged at sentencing. All three of the young women maintain that kissing, hugging and fondling took place there, he said.

Votino replied, "Yes," when asked if he had engaged in sex with all three girls either at his home or at a location in Sharon.

Two men and two women, identified as family members of the young women in the case, sat silently in the courtroom as Votino entered his plea. They declined to speak to reporters.

Epstein said they or the girls could make statements at the sentencing or they could submit written victim's impact statements to the court, detailing how the case has affected their lives.

The family members in court were satisfied with Tuesday's plea hearing, he added.

"I think they needed to see him admit what he did," Epstein said.

Votino, who declined to comment to reporters, could also call witnesses in his behalf at the sentencing, Epstein said.

Possible sentence: Judge Wherry accepted the plea and advised Votino that a presentence investigation will be done. The judge said the maximum penalty for the first-degree misdemeanor would be 21/2 to five years in a state prison and a $10,000 fine. Authorities have said it will likely be less because Votino has no criminal record. Judge Wherry allowed Votino to remain free on his own recognizance pending sentencing.

Epstein said his office will push for a state-level prison term, which would mean a sentence of at least two years on the maximum end.

Epstein said he expects Votino's attorney to push for probation instead of jail time.

Victims praised: The district attorney said he accepted a plea agreement because it was important to resolve the case as quickly as possible and to get a full admission of guilt from Votino to clear the reputations of the young women.

Those girls have maintained a positive attitude throughout the legal process and aren't second-guessing their decisions to tell authorities what happened, Epstein said.

"Taking on a legend like Votino" was a "courageous" act on their part, he said.

Votino, a fixture at Kennedy for nearly two decades, led the boy's basketball team to six state championships, including four in the past four years. He was suspended and later fired by the school after officials learned of his liaisons with the students through a March 30 call to a child abuse hot line.

Although Votino expressed no regret in court, Epstein said that, in making his confession to authorities in June, Votino acknowledged that what he had done was wrong, both legally and morally.




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