Catholic priest, ex-EWTN TV host, fathered child; he's now in custody fight, accused of abuse
By Greg Garrison
March 25, 2015
|David Stone, 54, formerly known as Father Frances Mary Stone, was host of the TV program "Life on the Rock" on Eternal Word Television Network. He fathered a child born in 2008. The mother was fired from EWTN and Stone was put on long-term leave of absence, according to Jefferson County court documents.|
|Barbara Dorris, outreach director, SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, stands in front of St. Paul's Cathedral in Birmingham, Alabama Tuesday March 23, 2015.|
A national group that monitors allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy has focused attention this week on the Alabama case of David Lawrence Stone, a Catholic priest and former EWTN TV host who was arrested in 2013 and charged with sexual abuse of a minor under 12.
The minor he is charged with sexually abusing is his own son, now six years old.
Stone, 54, formerly known as Father Frances Mary Stone, was host of the TV program "Life on the Rock" on Eternal Word Television Network.
In court filings, Stone's attorneys have argued that the allegation of child abuse is false. Stone has been in a lengthy custody battle with Christina Presnell, the mother of his child, according to Jefferson County Court records.
A spokeswoman for SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, was in Birmingham on Tuesday to discuss the case. She said Bishop Robert J. Baker, head of the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham, should let people know about the allegation and that the priest still lives in Irondale.
"Even if you believe he's innocent, they should be open about it and let the truth come out," said Barbara Dorris, outreach director for SNAP. She said that since the Catholic Church was rocked by scandal in recent years over accusations of sexual abuse by priests, bishops have vowed to be more open about allegations against priests. "Protect the kids," she said. "The bishops in some states have not been taken to task. This crisis isn't over."
Baker said that Stone no longer is a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, the order of priests founded in 1987 by Mother Angelica, who also founded EWTN. Stone no longer lives at the Annunciation Friary in Irondale, Baker said. Stone lives in a rented house in Irondale, according to court documents.
"He's not living in their community," Baker said. "They are following canonical procedures on the case."
The diocese investigated the case and it's now being played out in the judicial system, in both criminal and civil cases in Jefferson County.
"We have investigated, and done everything we're required to do," Baker said. "He is out of the ministry. Everything is pending the outcome of the trials. My understanding is he is saying he is falsely accused. Any of these situations are difficult."
Priest and mother of his child both lost jobs at EWTN
Scott Morro, an attorney for Presnell, said the relationship between Stone and Presnell started when she was working for EWTN. Presnell worked as a human resource coordinator for EWTN, according to court documents. She met Stone in 1998, went to confession with him as her priest and considered him her spiritual adviser, then began a sexual relationship with him in 2001. They kept the relationship secret, but were discovered when she became pregnant. EWTN fired Presnell in 2008 and Stone was put on a long-term leave of absence, court records show.
"She started working there, and she started to be counseled by Dave," Morro said. "That grew into a flirtatious relationship, which grew into a dating relationship, which led to the conception of their child. It was all consensual."
Presnell, 47, was widowed in 1999 after a 13-year marriage and had two daughters and a son with her husband. She also had another son by another father while separated from her husband, then had Stone's son, who was born in 2008, according to court documents.
Stone arrested after mother files complaint of abuse
The sexual abuse case against Stone is still pending in Jefferson County, Morro said. "They're waiting to present it to the grand jury," he said.
According to court documents, Stone had visitation with his son starting in 2010. In May 2011, Presnell said that the boy told her that his father put his finger in the boy's anus, causing him to defecate on the bed. Stone denies that story and says she made it up. She filed a police report. Stone was arrested by Irondale Police on Oct. 9, 2013 and released on $150,000 bond.
Stone does not currently have visitation privileges with his son as a condition of the bond, court records show. He has been fighting for visitation privileges and custody in civil court in Jefferson County.
William Bradford and Amber Ladner, attorneys for Stone on the criminal charge, said the allegation against him is false.
"Mr. Stone's primary concern has always been, and remains today, his son's well being," Bradford and Ladner said in a prepared statement. "The actions of SNAP in recent days are baseless, misguided, and driven by a lack of information as to the true and correct facts regarding Mr. Stone, his son, Ms. Presnell, and the ongoing litigation. Due to this lack of basic understanding, the statement of SNAP is replete with false information regarding the situation and Mr. Stone. Mr. Stone took a leave of absence from the Church prior to his son's birth. It was Mr. Stone who initiated the legal proceedings in Jefferson County Family Court in an effort to gain custody or visitation with his son. This was done with the sole purpose of Mr. Stone having a meaningful father/son relationship with his child. Thereafter, Ms. Presnell prompted the filing of criminal charges against Mr. Stone. Mr. Stone adamantly denies all allegations of any wrongdoing regarding his son, and is of the opinion that the false charges are the result of an effort to gain advantage in the Family Court proceeding. Mr. Stone will continue to press his case for custody and/or visitation, and will vigorously defend himself against all false allegations of criminal conduct. To that end, he continues to look forward to the true facts regarding this situation being brought forth in the courts as soon as possible."
Latest court filings include clinical psychologist's reports
Presnell was held in contempt of court on Feb. 13 by Jefferson County Judge Carnella Greene Norman for not appearing in court for depositions. Morro said that Presnell was taking care of her oldest son who was in a hospital intensive care unit in Tennessee for several days after a car accident, and that she had previously done depositions on the case. Morro filed an appeal of Norman's ruling on March 6.
Morro, a former police officer, said his client's allegations of abuse against Stone are credible.
"These are egregious charges against a man," Morro said. "If I didn't believe they were true, I wouldn't be representing her."
Former Birmingham attorney Mitch Damsky, who represented Stone after his arrest but last year moved to Wyoming, said the abuse allegation may be an effort to gain advantage in the custody dispute.
"I really don't think that he did it," Damsky said. "It didn't add up to me."
In the most recent civil court filing today, March 25, a clinical psychologist's reports on both Presnell and Stone were submitted. "Christina's allegation against Dave is highly questionable given the timing and circumstance of it," wrote licensed clinical psychologist Alan Blotcky. "Dave's psychological evaluation does not even hint at a person who is capable of abuse. It is implausible."
Blotcky wrote that Stone is "fully capable of being a healthy and competent parent," and recommended that Stone be given visitation. Physical custody for Stone "should be a viable option in this case," he wrote.
But Ladner noted that even if Stone were awarded visitation with his son, it's prohibited in the terms of his bond, and could be delayed pending the outcome of the criminal case.