Does Curlin Deserve to Be Praised?

By Ken Garfield
Charlotte Observer [North Carolina]
Downloaded April 8, 2003

Many agree that Bishop William Curlin did a lot of wonderful things during his eight years as head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte.

But does he deserve to be honored with a public tribute in light of decisions he made regarding allegations of sexual abuse against diocesan employees? Most recently, the diocese dismissed a Charlotte Catholic High School teacher who was hired from the Boston Archdiocese despite Curlin being warned there was a "reasonable probability" he had engaged in sexual misconduct.

The question of honoring Curlin is worth considering as Belmont Abbey College prepares to present the retired leader of 130,000 Catholics with the prestigious Grace Award for public service.

Wherever you stand on the issue, this much is clear -- judging the full life and work of a person is more a matter of gray than it is black and white.

Belmont Abbey President James Gearity said the committee that chose Curlin for the award did not consider his role in cases involving sexual-abuse allegations. In one, a priest from Boston was hired in 1997 to teach at Belmont Abbey even though the diocese knew he was the subject of allegations of sexual misconduct involving adults. The teacher was removed in 1998 after another allegation.

Gearity said Curlin was chosen to receive the award at an April 24 fund-raising dinner because of his good relationship with Belmont Abbey, and his overall good works. Curlin was known for his outreach to HIV/AIDS patients, and for welcoming Mother Teresa to a 1995 rally at the Charlotte Coliseum that drew 13,500. With his retirement at age 75, Gearity said, such an honor seemed appropriate.

"The guy has just been very, very good to us," said Gearity, noting he has not received any formal complaints about honoring Curlin. He also said ticket sales for the dinner are going especially well.

Some, though, oppose any public tribute.

Dennis Whittaker, a member of St. Gabriel Catholic and the father of four children who attended Catholic schools in Charlotte, shared his concern in an e-mail to me: "He left our diocese in turmoil amid unanswered questions about monies spent settling abuse cases (and) why he sought the hiring of an alleged abuser to teach at Charlotte Catholic. Moreover, why no one seems to accept responsibility for such decisions ...Curlin's offered no answers or public apologies, and many he was supposed to be leading feel deeply betrayed. Such is his legacy."

Other Charlotte Catholic High parents have shared their concern with diocese officials over the hiring of the teacher -- a move for which the diocese last month apologized for what it called a "breach of trust."

Curlin, through a diocese spokesman, declined to comment for this column, as he has declined to comment on any cases since retiring in September. He still lives in Charlotte.

It's left to each of us, then, to judge his legacy, and to decide for ourselves whether he deserves a dinner and praise.

Ken Garfield

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