Priest's Abuse Trial Set to Start
By Schuyler Kropf
The Post and Courier [South Carolina]
April 24, 2006
A Catholic priest accused of molesting two young boys 27 years ago is scheduled to go on trial today in Charleston County.
If the trial goes forward, it would be the first of several molestation cases against Diocese of Charleston clergy, coaches or teachers to make it in front of a jury. Defendants in at least six previous abuse cases pleaded guilty rather than go to trial.
The Rev. James Nyhan, 60, faces two charges of committing a lewd act on a child under the age of 14.
The alleged incidents allegedly occurred around 1979 when Nyhan was a visiting associate pastor at the Church of the Nativity on Folly Road.
The two alleged victims, who have not been identified, are expected to testify. Both are now adults.
If convicted, Nyhan could face 10 years in prison, based on the law in effect at the time of the alleged attacks. The legislature has since increased the penalty for such crimes to 15 years. There is no statute of limitations on child sex crimes in South Carolina.
Nyhan has not entered a formal plea to either charge. His attorney, Andy Savage of Charleston, said he is not guilty.
Prosecutors at the 9th Circuit Solicitor's office declined to comment, citing concerns over pre-trial publicity.
Those concerns arose Friday during a pre-trial hearing when the opposing parties and Circuit Judge Markley Dennis made plans for a larger than normal jury pool, in part because of the sensitive and religious nature of the case.
All signs Friday pointed to the case going forward.
Nyhan was arrested by the Charleston County Sheriff's Department in November 2003 after his name surfaced in the investigation into widespread sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
The first Charleston alleged victim is said to have reported the incident during the mid-1990s, although opinions differ as to what happened as a result.
Nyhan is no longer serving as a priest. The Boston clergy removed him from active ministry in June 2002 after a man accused him of repeatedly molesting him in the 1970s, according to Boston media reports.
A previous investigation into a separate allegation against Nyhan was closed after his accuser recanted, earlier media reports said.
Nyhan came to Charleston in 1979 when he was granted a year's leave of absence from his duties in Massachusetts.
At the Church of the Nativity, Nyhan oversaw the church's altar boys, police have said. At least one of the alleged victims was one of his charges, police said, and the attack allegedly occurred in the church rectory.
The Charleston case against Nyhan formed after the Archdiocese of Boston contacted one of the local alleged victims to discuss a possible settlement.
The alleged victim wasn't interested in a financial settlement and wanted Nyhan prosecuted for the offense, police have said.
At least two civil suits have been filed against the Diocese of Charleston in connection with the Nyhan allegations. Both seek unspecified damages.
Criminal abuse charges against Nyhan alleged by a third Charleston victim are pending.
The Diocese last week released a media statement saying a number of lives have been affected.
"Allegations of sex abuse of minors affects the alleged victims, the accused and the church family," Bishop Robert J. Baker said. "The church looks for a timely and just resolution of these allegations and prays for the healing of all parties concerned."
The Charleston Diocese covers all of South Carolina, which is home to an estimated 300,000 Roman Catholics.
Jury selection is expected to take much of today and Tuesday to complete, largely because of a questionnaire jurors will be asked to fill out about their views and affiliations.
The actual trial is expected to take several days.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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