Priest Indicted on Charge of Sexual Battery; Defendant Says He's Not Guilty of Crime

By Randy Kenner
News Sentinel (Knoxville, Tennessee)
May 2, 2002

A Knoxville area Catholic priest was booked at the Knox County detention facility Wednesday after being indicted on a sexual battery charge involving a young man.

Father Stephen Charles LaPrad, who was the priest at the St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Lenoir City, is named in the indictment, which was returned by a Knox County grand jury in late April.

LaPrad, who is 52, denied criminal contact in a statement released by his attorney, Knoxville lawyer David M. Eldridge.

"Steve LaPrad does not deny an incident occurred," Eldridge said. "He states that at the moment this occurred, he believed that it was an encounter in which both men were interested.

"He is not guilty of this crime."

Eldridge said that LaPrad has resigned as the pastor of the parish to devote his energies to defending himself against the charge and in the best interest of the parish.

The indictment alleges LaPrad "did unlawfully, forcefully and by force and coercion have sexual contact" in violation of state law. It says the contact occurred on an unspecified date in November 2001.

Officials with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville said Wednesday that LaPrad informed them during a meeting on Nov. 18, 2001 of what had happened.

Church officials immediately placed him on administrative leave, which means he has not served any role with the church or lived at a church facility since that time.

The indictment does not detail the alleged actions that led to the charge being filed.

The incident took place at a health club in Knoxville.

John Gill, special counsel to District Attorney General Randy Nichols, said Wednesday that the charge "does not involve a parishioner or his duties as a priest."

The indictment does not say how old the alleged victim is but it lists him as being in the care of another person with the same last name.

Gill said the five-month period between the time of the alleged offense and the indictment being returned is typical in a case like this one. He said it ordinarily takes that long to complete the investigation, have it heard by a grand jury and have the indictment returned.

The charge comes on the heels of the disclosure March 8 that Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell, the founding bishop of the Knoxville diocese, admitted sexual misconduct involving at least one minor before he arrived in Knoxville in 1988.

There have never been any allegations of sexual abuse of minors by O'Connell during his tenure here, which ended in 1999 when he took over the diocese in Palm Beach, Fla., to replace a bishop there who had admitted sexually molesting minors.

The revelations about O'Connell were among a barrage of recent disclosures of sexual misconduct by priests that have rocked the Catholic Church in America in recent weeks.

Eldridge said he did not think the recent scandals would affect his client's right to a fair trial.

"The charge has nothing to do with Steve LaPrad's position," he said. "I am confident that the jury will understand that."

LaPrad is free on bond.

The sexual battery charge carries a sentence of one to two years in prison.


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