Embattled Local Priest Dies in Nashville

By Bill Dries
The Daily News
December 31, 2009

One of the dominant figures in the string of civil lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse by Memphis Catholic priests died this week in Nashville.

The Rev. Paul St. Charles was named in more of the civil lawsuits filed in Shelby County Circuit Court since 2004 than any other priest.

He died at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville Sunday after a long illness that had left him confined to a wheelchair in recent years.

The six lawsuits alleged that the Catholic Diocese of Memphis knew or should have known that St. Charles was a “dangerous sexual predator” – in the words of one of the lawsuits – and that the diocese should have warned others and taken stronger and earlier actions.

Mortal sins

Several of the lawsuits accused St. Charles of taking teenage boys to a Frayser drive-in movie theater and sexually abusing them in his parked car beneath a blanket. St. Charles came into contact with the youths as they served as altar boys or were involved in church groups the priest supervised.

The allegations covered his tenure as associate pastor at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in the 1970s and as pastor of Church of the Ascension in Raleigh during the 1980s.

Four of the six civil lawsuits were settled by the diocese. Two others are still pending in Circuit Court. They are awaiting a critical appeals court ruling in a civil case involving another priest that centers on when the statute of limitations runs out on such claims.

Because St. Charles was not a defendant in those cases, his death does not end the litigation.

St. Charles, from Nashville, came to Memphis in the 1960s shortly after he was ordained. At the time, Memphis and West Tennessee were part of the Catholic Diocese of Nashville. The Diocese of Memphis, comprising the counties between the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers, was formed in 1971 and St. Charles became its first youth director.

The Catholic Youth Organizations (CYOs) in each parish were among the chief duties of the youth director, and the CYO chapters became increasingly popular during St. Charles’ two-year tenure.

Before and after his stint as youth director, he was also parish moderator of some of the largest CYO chapters in the city. St. Charles won national praise for his work with teenagers at a time when runaways and drug abuse were major national problems.

He retired in the mid-1980s because of an unspecified degenerative neuromuscular disease and moved back to Nashville, where he remained under the supervision of the Diocese of Memphis.

Victims: Take your pick

Memphis Bishop J. Terry Steib suspended St. Charles’ priestly duties in August 2005 after a Diocesan Review Board found it “more likely than not” that St. Charles had sexually abused a teenager in the 1980s at a Memphis parish. The man who complained of the abuse to church leaders in 2002 was not among those who later filed civil lawsuits against the Diocese of Memphis.

The suspension meant St. Charles was barred from performing any priestly duties or identifying himself as a priest.

“He is spending the rest of his life in prayer and penance,” Diocesan spokesman the Rev. John Geaney told The Memphis News in an October 2008 cover story on the allegations against St. Charles and other Memphis priests.

“That is what the Holy Father recommended to him and that is what he will do,” Geaney continued.

But St. Charles, from his home in Nashville, vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

“What they keep forgetting is that I’m a victim too,” St. Charles told The Nashville Scene newspaper a year ago. “If I am who they say I am, then someone from Nashville would make these horrible claims too. Any sin I committed 35 years ago, I confessed to 35 years ago – paid my repentance 35 years ago. And that’s the gospel truth.”

Two years after his suspension, St. Charles was honored as a “Golden Grad” of Nashville’s Father Ryan High School. He and other members of the school’s class of 1957 were handed plaques by Nashville Catholic Bishop David Choby.


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