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  Church Faces Painful Past
Woman Says Priest Kissed Her Inappropriately 40 Years Ago

By Gayle White
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
February 4, 2002

In a local version of the scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church, a Norcross woman is petitioning officials to apologize for a priest she says molested her 40 years ago at St. Joseph's Church in Marietta.

The Atlanta head of the Marist religious order said he believes that the Rev. Clarence Biggers inappropriately kissed Ellie Harold over several months when she was 10 and 11 years old. He said he plans to meet with her to "work for reconciliation."

"There isn't a doubt in my mind that something happened," said the Rev. Dennis Steik, the Marist provincial whose order furnished priests to St. Joseph's parish for decades.

Steik said he talked with Harold by telephone Thursday and said: "I want you to know, Ellie, I believe you."

But, he said, when concerns about Biggers surfaced in Marietta in the early 1960s, those in charge at the time moved the priest to another diocese outside of Georgia. A complaint from another woman in 2000 indicates that a similar situation arose at that diocese, Steik said.

Only one of the Marist officials who sanctioned the move is still alive, and he is in his 80s and suffering from dementia, Steik said.

Officials of both the Marist order and the Archdiocese of Atlanta said current policies are much more stringent.

Now 50, Harold is a minister ordained by the Association of Unity Churches. She directs New Church Ministries, an alternative church that meets at the Atlanta Unity Church.

Scandal widespread

Harold's allegations are the first to come to light in Atlanta amid a scandal that has widened since January. In Boston, the controversy emerged with the revelation that a former priest had been moved from parish to parish following accusations of sexual abuse numbering in the hundreds. In Palm Beach, Fla., the scandal resulted in the resignation of Bishop Joseph O'Connell, the second bishop in that diocese to leave under such a cloud.

And in Poland, Pope John Paul II's native country, the Archbishop of Poznan resigned, following a Vatican probe and newspaper allegations that he made advances on young clerics.

The pope addressed the scandals in a pre-Easter message to the clergy. "As priests, we are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination," he said.

The Atlanta Archdiocese faced other scandals involving pedophile priests in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Harold said recent publicity over priests' sexual abuse had revived her own feelings of betrayal. In a letter dated March 15 and furnished to the Journal-Constitution, Harold asked Atlanta Roman Catholic Archbishop John Donoghue for a "formal, public apology for the events of sexual abuse that took place."

Archdiocese attorney David Brown said Donoghue "would be the first to say, if this happened, she's owed an apology." But, he added, the archbishop "has to deal with the legal implications that are separate and distinct from the pastoral issues. . . . It sounds like it may have happened, but we need more information. We want to know what happened and were there others?"

Harold is scheduled to meet with archdiocesan officials on Friday.

Since 1969, Biggers has been a member of the Cistercian order of priests living at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers.

After he left St. Joseph's in Marietta, Biggers was transferred to another diocese. Steik would not identify it, but the Archdiocese of Atlanta's Web site says that from 1964 to 1967, Biggers served at St. Joseph's Church in Paulina, La.

In 2000, shortly after Steik became a Marist provincial official, he said, he was contacted by a woman who said she was molested by Biggers.

It apparently was the first time her complaints against the priest surfaced because there is no record of it in Biggers' file, Steik said.

Since he received the complaint from the woman, Steik said he has made repeated visits to the diocese. "We were able to work with that woman and assist her in some therapy costs," he said.

Steik said he talked to Biggers when the first allegation came to light and at least seven times since.

"He hasn't owned up to it in a way we would like him to," Steik said. "He's kind of seeing it as if he didn't do anything wrong."

The legitimacy of the unidentified woman's case was bolstered when Steik said he ran across a letter detailing the allegations against Biggers in Marietta. The letter, signed by five sets of Marietta parents, complained that Biggers had molested girls at St. Joseph's.

After leaving Louisiana, Biggers returned to Atlanta in 1967 to serve as a parochial vicar at Our Lady of the Assumption Church.

Then on Oct. 4, 1969, Biggers joined the monastery. Steik said the transfer papers in Biggers' file show no indication that he was forced or pressured to enter the monastery.

Dom Basil Pennington, abbot of the monastery in Conyers since 2000, said he removed Biggers from all active ministry when he learned of the woman's allegations. "He's living a completely contemplative life," Pennington said.

At 79, Biggers has been active in building and ground maintenance and more recently has worked in the office at the monastery. He uses a walker because of repeated surgeries on his feet and suffers from serious heart trouble, the abbot said. Pennington declined to approach Biggers for a possible interview, citing the priest's health.

"I'm just very sad that this occurred and feel very bad for the people involved," said Pennington, who also is expected to meet with Harold.

Satisfactory talk

Harold described her telephone conversation with Steik last week as "wonderful.

"To finally be heard by a human being with a heart made all the difference," she said.

Harold said Biggers' unwelcome attention usually came when she was helping out in the church office. She said he kissed her, forcing his tongue into her mouth and once put his hand into her pants.

Harold's mother, Charlotte Harold, is 89 and lives in Venice, Fla. She said she recalled hearing about Biggers from other mothers in the neighborhood. Several women came to her house to ask her to write a letter to Marist officials -- apparently the letter Steik found almost 40 years later -- because she had the only typewriter among them.

Later, she said, she and the other mothers received reply letters -- she can't remember who signed them -- saying that talking about the priest would be spreading scandal, which was a sin.

"They told us to keep our mouths shut," said Charlotte Harold, who like her daughter has left the church.

Biggers left soon after the exchange of letters and a new priest came to St. Joseph's, locked the office door and curtailed the children's visits to the church. Because nobody explained to the children, Harold said, "we felt like we were being punished in some way. . . . Nobody said it was a wrong thing he was doing. It was over."

Harold says her own life was troubled after the abuse.

Cynthia Schwartzberg, a New York clinical social worker who counseled Harold while living in Atlanta, said, "When something like this happens to anybody, especially at the age when we are forming our faith and our image of ourselves, it's life-forming. It affects our relationship to God, to ourselves and to others."

Harold says she met with Biggers at the monastery after learning that he had conducted a Mass at a dedication of a new building at St. Joseph's in 1991.

At the meeting, she said, Biggers described her as a "cuddly" and "affectionate" little girl, and she confronted him with the charge that he had kissed her.

Toward the end of a 1 1/2-hour visit, she said, he apologized.

Then, she said, "he kind of brightened up and said, 'At least I'm not like those priests you read about in the newspaper.' "

"How do you mean?" she said she asked him, and he replied, "I've never done anything with little boys."

Another case

Another case involving an Atlantan may soon come to light. Chris Gray, 50, a North Atlanta man who works in real estate, says a diocesan priest at Holy Cross parish in Chamblee made him undress and play sexual games. Gray said he cooperated until the priest asked for oral sex.

Gray would not say specifically what he is asking from the church. "There could be some litigation," he said.

Charlotte Perrell, a lawyer who is representing Gray, says he contacted her several months ago asking her to help him get "some acknowledgement of what happened" from the archdiocese.

The priest is "long since dead," said Archdiocese attorney Brown. He said he sees no basis for a legal claim against the archdiocese because the statute of limitations has passed.

The Georgia law code says, "Any civil action for recovery of damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual abuse shall be commenced within five years of the date the plaintiff attains the age of majority" or 18 years old.

But, Perrell said, "we think that's something that can be overcome. We're pretty comfortable we're going to get past the statute issue."

Other states have interpreted that statutes begin to apply when a person comes to realize that what happened to them was wrong, she said. And, by removing the priest from the jurisdiction, the diocese affected the ability to sue at the time.

Although Georgia had no law defining child molestation at the time, laws against assault probably would have applied in both the Gray and Harold cases, said Mary Margaret Oliver, a visiting professor at Emory University's Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic.

Gray, part of a "big Irish Catholic family" of 10 children, says he was taught to obey priests. "They were very holy people," he says. "We were taught the priest was your link to God."

As chief altar boy, Gray said, he worked in the church office almost every Saturday setting up schedules and preparing for Mass. In the late afternoon or evening, the priest would take him to his bedroom.

Gray said he finally told his parents what the priest was doing when his father asked him directly.

"One of the boys that I heard was involved sexually finally broke down and told his parents," Gray said. "At that point, other parents were contacted who had altar boys at church."

Gray said he and his father attended a meeting at the Archdiocese office with other parents and their sons, where they were told the priest would leave the church and they were not to discuss the matter.

Gray said he dropped away from the church but returned about six years ago when his wife and stepdaughter converted to Catholicism.

 
 

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